Passengers may not be able to claim compensation for a flight delay caused by a plane hitting a bird, after a European court ruled in favour of the airlines.

The Court of Justice of the European Union has decided that a collision between an aircraft and a bird is an “extraordinary circumstance”, meaning airlines may be exempt from having to pay compensation to thousands of passengers who have faced delays as a result of this.

However the ruling also states that airlines cannot delay flights if an authorised expert checks the aircraft after a collision with a bird and finds it airworthy.

See our Flight Delays guide for the full rules on when you can and can't claim.

What happened in this case?

The case reached the top European court after two passengers, who were travelling from Bulgaria to the Czech Republic in August 2013, were delayed for more than five hours.

According to Czech airline Travel Service, there had been a technical fault on one of the plane's previous flights which caused a delay of around one hour and 45 minutes, and the plane then hit a bird while landing on a separate flight, causing further delays to the flight in question.

The plane was checked by a local technician who found no damage, but Sunwing, the company who owned the aircraft, insisted a Travel Service technician must also check the plane.

The Court of Justice ruled that a second check was not needed.

Overall, however, it ruled that a plane hitting a bird is an extraordinary circumstance. It also said that if a delay is caused partly by an extraordinary circumstance, and partly by one for which the airline is responsible, only the latter should be taken into account when determining how long a passenger has been delayed for.

Passengers less likely to be able to claim for bird strike flight delays after EU ruling
Passengers less likely to be able to claim for bird strike flight delays after EU ruling

The case will now be referred back to the court in the Czech Republic to decide if the delayed passengers should be eligible for compensation, on the basis of this ruling.

What does this mean for passengers?

EU flight delay law states that airlines don't have to pay compensation for a delay caused by "extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken." Today's ruling means many passengers, including those who had claims on hold, are now unlikely to be able to claim for delays due to a bird strike.

If you are yet to claim for a delay caused purely by a bird strike, this ruling means it is much more likely the airline will throw out your case. If your claim has been on hold following a refusal by the airline, this ruling will also be taken into account by either the adjudicator or court you escalated your case to - again meaning it is much less likely you will win.

There could be cases, however, where the delay was partly caused by a bird strike but added to by a delay the airline would be considered responsible for, such as demanding a second technician as in the case above. If you feel this could be true of your case, you will need to decide whether to pursue it based on the new ruling.

Kevin Clarke, flight delay legal expert at Bott & Co, said: “This is not the decision we were hoping for, but nonetheless it is clarity from the highest court in Europe who have found that bird strikes are an extraordinary circumstance.

“We are particularly disappointed because we have a track record of winning bird strike cases in the UK, even to appeal level. We’ll be taking a long look at this judgment in the coming days to work out the best course of action for our clients and all UK passengers.”