As air travelers face another season of strike-related disruptions in Europe, a recent ruling handed down by the European Union Court of Justice could bring some relief to consumers.
In a decision that reportedly took the industry by surprise, the EU Court said that airlines could face claims for compensation from passengers whose flights were canceled or delayed due to a “wildcat” strike, typically a short-term walkout by workers called with little notice to the public. The ruling affects all passengers flying to or within Europe on an EU airline.
In fact, right after the court decision, there was a fresh reminder of how fast these actions can roil air travel: on Monday, Air France was forced to cancel 25 percent of its flights for two days, due to a 48-hour walkout by some of its pilots and other crew members. It was the tenth day in the last two months that the French national carrier had been forced to scrub some of its flights due to a long-simmering dispute over worker demands for a 6 percent pay hike.
This type of job action is more common in Europe than in many other parts of the world; in the U.S., transportation workers are generally prevented from walking off the job with little or no notice, and must first enter a 30-day “cooling off period” while talks continue.
But while the EU already has strong protections for airline passengers affected by flight disruptions, airlines have thus far been able to avoid having to compensate fliers in “extraordinary circumstances” beyond their control, which they’ve interpreted to include wildcat strikes.
That could change after the court’s decision, which was issued in a case involving a German discount carrier, TUIfly, which in 2016 had to cancel flights after flight crews called in sick en masse to protest the company’s restructuring.
The court said, in effect, that a labor dispute isn’t completely beyond the airline’s control in the same way a severe weather event would be. TUIfly said in a statement that it is examining the ruling before deciding on a course of action.
If the ruling holds, it could entitle passengers to file for compensation for up to $700, depending on the length of the delay. And fliers are also allowed to file retroactive claims going back three years.
In recent years, other major European airlines, including Lufthansa, have been affected by such sporadic walkouts. Asked about the EU Court’s move, a spokesman for Lufthansa told Travel Market Report that the airline will comply with the decision, but he added that “in these situations we always take care of our passengers.” Lufthansa, with its partner airlines, can usually accommodate affected customers on other flights, he said.
Still, strikes can be very costly to an airline — Air France, this week, said losses due to recent strikes will cost the company $209 million in operating income, and Lufthansa reported an even bigger hit to its bottom line several years ago from a series of pilots’ strikes.