In a recent first instance decision, the West London County Court has ruled on the rights of and remedies available to passengers following cancellation and delay of separate scheduled passenger flights due to wildcat strike action at Barcelona airport.

The claim was for out of pocket expenses (transportation, food and accommodation) under EU Regulation (EC) No. 261/2004 and damages for alleged stress and anxiety due to (i) cancellation of the claimants' flight from Barcelona to Milan on 28 July 2006, and (ii) delay to the claimants' return flight on 30 July.

The outbound flight - Palma de Mallorca to Barcelona - was performed without incident. However, upon landing at Barcelona (where the claimants were to connect with the Milan flight) their inbound aircraft was not permitted to disembark until the emergency services were able to attend. This was due to an unfolding wildcat strike at Barcelona's El Prat airport: AENA, the Spanish Airport Authority, had announced its decision not to renew Iberia's contract to provide baggage handling services at the airport. Some of the striking Iberia workers blockaded the runway and spread oil onto the runway, setting it alight. The airport was closed to air traffic for the rest of the day, causing extensive disruption to Iberia's network (and that of other carriers) for several days. The claimants' scheduled Milan flight was cancelled and their return flight on 30 July was subject to delay.

Iberia argued that it was relieved from obligation to pay compensation as disruption to its scheduled services had been caused by extraordinary circumstances, which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken (Article 5(3)). Some 10,000 passengers were left stranded at the airport and the army and police were called in to control the situation. Iberia and other carriers were simply unable, through no fault of their own, to operate flights out of Barcelona and/or (by reason of the sheer numbers of passengers affected by the strike) to comply with requirements under Article 9 to provide individual passengers with assistance.

Reference was made in oral submissions to Articles 5 (cancellation), 6 (delay), 7 (compensation), and 9 (right to care) of the regulation.

The claimants argued that cancellation due to strike action did not constitute extraordinary circumstances as the strike was foreseeable and the defendants should have put in place a contingency plan in the event that Iberia lost the baggage handling contract. The Court agreed with defence submissions made by Barlow Lyde & Gilbert LLP on behalf of Iberia and held that cancellation of the outbound Milan flight due to the strike action did indeed constitute extraordinary circumstances under the regulation and so Iberia was relieved from obligation to pay compensation to the claimants.

With regard to the delayed return flight, District Judge Ramsden held that, whilst Iberia had breached Article 9 by not providing the claimants with stipulated passenger assistance, there was no civil claim for compensation. It was reiterated on behalf of the defendant that providing assistance in the circumstances was impossible. It was further argued by the defendant that the existence of statutory instrument (SI) 975/2005 (The Civil Aviation (Denied Boarding, Compensation and Assistance) Regulations 2005) cannot be ignored. According to the SI, whilst a breach of article 9 of the regulation gives rise to a public law remedy, a civil claim is effectively barred. In addition, there is a distinction to be drawn in the language of Article 7 (compensation for cancellation) and Article 9 (right to care) of the regulation. The former gives rise to a right to compensation, the latter does not.

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