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Flight delayed by 'unruly behaviour'? You're NOT due compensation, EU court rules

Airlines don't have to compensate travellers whose flights are delayed by "unruly behaviour" by other passengers, according to a new ruling from a European court on a case which involved a passenger biting and assaulting others on board. 

Under EU rule 261/2004 – which still applies to UK as well as EU flights until the end of the year – you're often entitled to between £110 and £510 in compensation if your flight's cancelled or delayed by more than three hours. But for you to be able to claim, the delay must be deemed to be the airline's fault, and not due to an "extraordinary circumstance" beyond the airline's control.

The new ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union states that if a flight is delayed or cancelled due to the unruly behaviour of a passenger, this counts as an "extraordinary circumstance" – so airlines don't need to pay out compensation, so long as they've done all they can to re-route passengers and get them to their destination as soon as possible.

For full help on how the flight delay compensation rules work, plus a free online tool to help you claim, see our Flight Delays guide.

What was this case about?

The ruling was made after a court case between Portuguese airline Transportes Aéreos Portugueses (TAP) and a traveller who had been delayed almost 24 hours on a journey from Brazil to Norway.

The first leg of the passenger's journey was delayed because an earlier flight had been diverted elsewhere due to an incident onboard, where a passenger bit another passenger, then assaulted other passengers and crew members. The delay meant the traveller who brought the complaint missed their connecting flight and was flown to their destination on a later flight the following day.

The airline argued it did not need to pay compensation because the delay resulted from the onboard incident – and the court agreed that this was an "extraordinary circumstance".

What does the court ruling mean?

While the European court looked at a specific case, it establishes an interpretation of the rules which could be used for other claims, meaning airlines won't have to pay out for flight delays caused by unruly passenger behaviour.

Crucially, airlines can refuse to pay compensation to passengers who are either on the affected flight, or on a later flight with the same airline that is delayed or cancelled as a result of the incident.

However, the airline must "deploy all the resources at its disposal" to make sure affected passengers are quickly re-routed, the court said.

The airline can also only use the excuse of "extraordinary circumstances" if the delay or cancellation was directly caused by the unruly passenger's behaviour.

And it must show it didn't contribute to the incident or fail to take appropriate steps to prevent it – for example, by allowing a passenger to board when they are already showing problematic behaviour.

Why do the rules still apply now we've left the EU?

Flight delay compensation rules haven't changed as a result of Brexit, as these EU rules continue to apply to the UK until the end of the year as part of transition arrangements.

But even after that, the Government insists flight delay compensation rules in the UK will remain the same, as it's written EU261 into UK law. It says this means you'll have exactly the same right to claim compensation as you did when we were in the EU – though we've yet to see full details of how this will work in practice.

It's also worth bearing in mind that if you fly between two European countries after Brexit, you'll still be covered under EU261, as the law does not require you to be an EU citizen to claim compensation.

We've full info on how Brexit will affect travel in our 20 Brexit need-to-knows guide.

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