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Compensation for connecting flight delays mandatory

The Court of Justice of the EU strengthened air passenger rights while highlighting the role of travel agents in ticket sales (C-436/21). Passengers will thus be entitled to compensation even for the delay of a connecting flight operated by a different air carrier not bound by the specific legal relationship. It is sufficient that a travel agent combined the flights into a single ticket and charged the passenger for the total price

In the present case, a passenger purchased a ticket from a travel agent from Stuttgart (Germany) to Kansas City (USA), the journey consisting of three flights with different airlines which had no legal relationship between each other. The travel agent from whom the passenger purchased the ticket merely issued a single ticket and charged the passenger the total price for all those flights. While the first Swiss International Air Lines AG flight and the second American Airlines flight went as planned, the third American Airlines flight between Philadelphia and Kansas City was delayed by more than four hours.

The passenger sought a one-off compensation of EUR 600 payable to passengers in the event of a flight delay of more than three hours, pursuant to Regulation (EC) No. 261/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council and the established case-law of the Court of Justice of the EU (in particular the judgment in Sturgeon, C-402/7 and C-432/07). They sought compensation even though the delayed flight itself did not fall within the scope of the regulation (it was not a flight from an airport in the EU territory) and Swiss International Air Lines AG had no legal relationship with American Airlines.

In its judgment C-436/21 of 6 October 2022, the Court of Justice of the EU stated that the concept of connecting flights covers transportation consisting of several flights operated by different operating air carriers not bound by a specific legal relationship where those flights were combined by a travel agent who charged a total price and issued a single ticket. A passenger departing from an airport in the territory of the EU whose flight to the destination of the last flight (in this case, Kansas City) was delayed on arrival by at least three hours is therefore entitled to compensation under Article 7 of that regulation. It does not matter that there was no legal relationship between the air carriers and that the interconnectedness of the individual flights had been created only by the travel agent. The condition of a legal relationship between airlines would significantly restrict passengers' rights to seek compensation for long delays.

The Court of Justice of the EU has thus once again upheld air passengers’ rights while emphasising the role of travel agencies (including OTAs – online travel agencies) in the sale of air tickets. On the other hand, travel agents may face a higher risk of legal actions for damage compensation by air carriers having to compensate passengers for flight delays.