Delays and congestion at European airports - When can airlines or airport operators be held liable for compensation?

These congestion situations primarily occur during the summer months.

In case of an error, passengers may be entitled to compensation, but each situation is assessed on a case-by-case basis. In most cases, congestion is caused by exceptional circumstances, and therefore, no right to compensation exists. Passengers should pay particular attention to identifying the party responsible for the error – the airline or the airport operator. The general principle is that the responsibility for the error lies with the party responsible for the congested service. This is also the party to which the passenger can address their compensation claim.

Airline responsibility in congestion situations

Passenger rights are regulated by Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council, which covers flight cancellations, delays, and denied boarding. According to the regulation, passengers are entitled to fixed compensation, for example, when a flight is canceled or delayed, and the passenger arrives at their final destination at least three hours late. The fixed compensation is intended to compensate for lost time. However, if the situation is caused by extraordinary circumstances that could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken, there is no right to fixed compensation.

Passengers may also be entitled to compensation for damages paid by the airline if the flight is delayed and it causes harm to the passenger. Such damages may include unused accommodation or loss of earnings. The liability of airlines for damages is regulated in the Montreal Convention, which aims to unify certain rules relating to international carriage by air. As with fixed compensation, compensation for damages is generally not granted in exceptional circumstances.

An circumstance is considered exceptional if it is not part of the airline’s normal operations and is beyond the airline’s control. If the cancellation or delay of a flight is caused by congestion in a service that is not the airline’s responsibility, such situations can be considered beyond the airline’s control. Therefore, the airline is not liable for compensation to the passenger, for example, in a situation where the delay is caused by congestion due to a shortage of airport personnel.

However, the airline’s responsibility may apply to its own services. The airline must ensure, for example, proper handling of check-in by having sufficient staff available. If deficiencies in providing such services lead to a passenger missing their flight, the airline may be liable for damages.

Airport operator responsibility in congestion situations

In the contacts received by consumer authorities, congestion at airport security checks has been particularly highlighted. The organization of security checks is regulated by Regulation (EC) No 300/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council, as well as by aviation legislation in Finland. It is important to note that the operating airline itself does not perform passenger or baggage security checks at the airport; usually, it is the responsibility of the airport operator. For example, Finavia Oyj operates Helsinki-Vantaa Airport.

Passengers must allocate sufficient time for security checks. If a passenger misses their flight specifically due to an error in the security check, the responsibility lies with the service provider, usually the airport operator, and the passenger must address their claim to them. An error may include, for example, insufficient staff assigned to the security checkpoint, leading to congestion.

In Finland, security checks are considered a public administrative task, and the questions related to it are beyond the jurisdiction of consumer authorities. Therefore, if you encounter issues with security checks at a Finnish airport, it’s advisable to contact the appropriate authorities responsible for overseeing security operations at the airport.

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