It all started with the failure of UK air traffic control services on 12 December 2014. As a consequence of the system failure, all departures from London airports and all departures from European airports that were planned to route through affected UK airspace were stopped. My British Airways flight BA958 from London Heathrow to Munich was one of the many cancelled flights.
When British Airways notified me of the cancellation, I asked them to rebook me onto a Lufthansa flight the following day as this was the earliest available opportunity to get to Munich. British Airways refused to do that and offered me one of their own flights instead. The problem was that with their flight I would have only been able to make it to Munich significantly later than with the Lufthansa flight.
As Article 8 of EU regulation 261/2004 provides passengers in case of cancellations with a right to be ‘re-rout[ed], under comparable transport conditions, to their final destination at the earliest opportunity’, I booked myself onto the Lufthansa flight and asked British Airways to reimburse me for the costs incurred.
As they refused to reimburse me, I took them to court. Thanks to the small claims track and thanks to Money Claim Online, this is a fairly simple process.
A hearing was scheduled for 26 June 2015. Less than an hour before the hearing, British Airways’ lawyer took me by surprise as he let me know that they wanted to base their defence on the Court of Appeal judgment in Graham v Thomas Cook from 23 July 2012. This decision states that a ‘breach [of Article 8 of EU regulation 261/2004] does not give rise to a civil action for damages’.
Without any time to research, I couldn’t counter that argument sufficiently. District Judge Gill followed BA’s lawyer and dismissed my claim, see the approved transcript of her judgment.
Back home from court and as I couldn’t believe that this should be true, I searched the internet and came across a later judgment by the European Court of Justice which seemed to contradict Graham v Thomas Cook.
On 31 January 2013, in the case McDonagh v Ryanair, the European Court of Justice concluded that ‘it must be held that an air passenger may invoke before a national court the failure of an air carrier to comply with its obligation’ under EU regulation 261/2004.
Equipped with this finding, I appealed against the original judgment. An appeal hearing was scheduled for 16 March 2016. Two key questions had to be addressed there.
- Does EU regulation 261/2004 oblige airlines to rebook a passenger onto flights by other airlines if those offer earlier flights to the passenger’s final destination?
- If an airline is found in breach of EU regulation 261/2004, do passengers have a right to bring a claim against them?
The first question was important as British Airways could only be in breach of EU regulation 261/2004 if this regulation required them to rebook a passenger onto a flight by another airline. In this particular case, the question was whether BA had an obligation to rebook me onto the earlier Lufthansa flight.
The second question was important as the UK Court of Appeal had, as mentioned before, found that a breach of EU regulation 261/2004 ‘does not give rise to civil action for damages’. The reason why I had lost at the original hearing.
His Honour Judge Madge found in my favour in respect of both questions. I consider this a landmark decision as a) this is, to the best of my knowledge, the first judgment on the question whether airlines have an obligation to re-book their passengers onto flights by other airlines, and as b) this revoked the unbelievable decision by the UK Court of Appeal that a breach of EU regulation 261/2004 should not be enforceable in a UK court.
Details on the decision can be found in the approved transcript of His Honour Judge Madge’s judgment. This decision is a great victory for consumer rights and is enforcing the passenger rights laid down in EU regulation 261/2004. I am obviously very happy with the outcome. It proves that it is worth fighting for your rights.