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Flight delay: European Court of Justice says arrival corresponds to the time at which at least one of the doors of the aircraft is opened


In the event of a flight delay, one of the most important things to consider is the actual length of the delay.

In order to determine whether you are eligible for a compensation, you need to be careful while determining the relevant time of arrival of your flight.

A decision from the European Court of Justice provides useful insight.

How to determine the relevant time of arrival?

The European judges ruled in Germanwings GmbH v Ronny Henning that the relevant time of arrival to consider in order to calculate the delay of a flight 'corresponds to the time at which at least one of the doors of the aircraft is opened, the assumption being that, at that moment, the passengers are permitted to leave the aircraft.'

Please note that an airline may not insert in its Terms and Conditions of Use that the time of arrival will be the time the plane touches the ground, according to European Court of Justice case law.


Details of the case Germanwings GmbH v Ronny Henning dated 4th September 4th, 2014

Ronny Henning, passenger of Germanwings, was travelling from Salzburg (Austria) to Cologne-Bonn (Germany) on 11th May 2012. The flight was supposed to take off at 1.30 pm and to land at 2.40 pm.

The flight was delayed. The wheels touched the runway at 5.38 pm but the plane was parked at 5.43 pm, 3 hours and 3 minutes later than the initial time of arrival.

Ronny Henning claimed 250 euros in compensation for the delayed flight.

The airline refused to pay, arguing that the plane touched the ground at 5.38 pm, 2 hours and 58 minutes later than the initial time of arrival, and that the 3 hour threshold was therefore not met.

The first-instance court ordered the company to pay Ronny Henning compensation, arguing that the relevant time of arrival corresponds to the time at which the first door of the aircraft was opened to enable the passengers to leave.

The company appealed this decision. The appellate court, the Landesgericht Salzburg, asked the European Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling:

'What time is relevant for the term “time of arrival” used in Articles 2, 5 and 7 of Regulation [No 261/2004]:

  1. the time that the aircraft lands on the runway (“touchdown”);
  2. the time that the aircraft reaches its parking position and the parking brakes are engaged or the chocks have been applied (“in-block time”);
  3. the time that the aircraft door is opened;
  4. a time defined by the parties in the context of party autonomy?

The European judges observed that 'during a flight, passengers remain confined in an enclosed space, under the instructions and control of the air carrier, in which, for technical and safety reasons, their possibilities of communicating with the outside world are considerably restricted. In such circumstances, passengers are unable to carry on, without interruption, their personal, domestic, social or business activities. It is only once the flight has ended that they are able to resume their normal activities'(§20).

They noticed that 'although such inconveniences must be regarded as unavoidable as long as a flight does not exceed the scheduled duration, the same is not true if there is a delay, since the time by which, in the circumstances described in the preceding paragraph, the scheduled duration of the flight has been exceeded, represents ‘lost time’ in the light of the fact that the passengers concerned cannot use it to achieve the objectives which led them to go at the desired time to the destinations of their choice.' (§21).

'It follows that the concept of "actual arrival time" must be understood, in the context of Regulation No 261/2004, as corresponding to the time at which the situation described in paragraph 20 of the present judgment comes to an end' (§22).

Therefore, 'in that regard, it must be stated that, in principle, the situation of passengers on a flight does not change substantially when their aircraft touches down on the runway at the destination airport, when that aircraft reaches its parking position and the parking brakes are engaged or when the chocks are applied, as the passengers continue to be subject, in the enclosed space in which they are sitting, to various constraints.' (§23).

'It is only when the passengers are permitted to leave the aircraft and the order is given to that effect to open the doors of the aircraft that the passengers may in principle resume their normal activities without being subject to those constraints' (§24).

The Court concluded that 'The concept of "arrival time", which is used to determine the length of the delay to which passengers on a flight have been subject, refers to the time at which at least one of the doors of the aircraft is opened, the assumption being that, at that moment, the passengers are permitted to leave the aircraft' (§25).

You can read the entire decision here.


What is a preliminary ruling?

A preliminary ruling is a decision of the European Court of Justice on the interpretation of European Union law, made at the request of a court of a Member State. The European Court of Justice does not decide the merits of the case, it only answers a question on a particular point of European Union law. The national court rules the case once the preliminary ruling is rendered.

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by Frédéric Pelouze, Weclaim Founder & Director

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