The Court of Justice of the European Union has issued its judgement on the Case C-452/13 - Germanwings GmbH. vs Ronny Henningon September 4th, 2014.The case originated from a request for a preliminary ruling regarding the interpretation of the concept of 'actual arrival time' in proceedings between the air carrier Germanwings GmbH. ('Germanwings') and the passenger Mr Henning before the Austrian courts.

The dispute in the main proceedings concerned the carrier's refusal to compensate Mr Henning for the alleged delay with which the aircraft arrived at Cologne/Bonn airport (Germany). Mr Henning complained that his flight took off with a delay of three hours and ten minutes and touched down on the tarmac of the runway at Cologne/Bonn airport with a delay of two hours and fifty-eight minutes. Once the parking position was reached, the doors of the aircraft opened three hours and three minutes later than the scheduled arrival time.

The aggrieved passenger claimed that the final destination was reached with a delay of more than three hours in relation to the scheduled arrival time and that he could consequently claim a compensation of € 250 pursuant to Articles 5, 6 and 7 of Regulation No261/2004. On the contrary, Germanwings took the view that the actual arrival time was the time at which the plane landed on the runway of the Cologne/Bonn airport, with the result that the delay in relation to the scheduled arrival time was just two hours and fifty-eight minutes. A long delay that entitles to compensation is equal to or in excess of three hours, so compensation was not due.

Firstly, the Court observes that the concept of 'actual arrival time' may not be defined on a contractual basis but must be interpreted in an independently and uniformly. In that regard, the Court points out 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. 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, in view, inter alia, the fact that the passengers cannot use the 'lost time' to achieve the objectives which led them to choose". It follows that the concept of 'actual arrival time' must be understood as the time at which such a situation of constraint comes to an end.

It is indeed true that passengers' situation on a flight does not change substantially when the aircraft touches down on the runway or when the aircraft reaches its parking position, since they must remained seated and deprived of any possibility to communicate with the external world. It is only when the air carrier gives the order to open the doors and authorizes passengers to leave the aircraft that they cease to be subject to those constraints and may resume their normal activities.

Therefore, in the light of the foregoing considerations, the Court ruled that the concept of 'arrival time', which is used to determine the length of the delay to which passengers on a flight have been subjected, refers to the time at which at least one of the doors of the aircraft is opened. This is based on the assumption that,only from that moment onwards, passengers are permitted to leave the aircraft.

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