Air Passenger Rights: What Are Extraordinary Circumstances in 2022?

You may be entitled to compensation for a cancelled or delayed flight. But not if the delay was caused by extraordinary circumstances.

Extraordinary Circumstances: When Are You NOT Eligible for Compensation

In the context of air passenger rights, “extraordinary circumstances” are conditions or events disrupting the normal operation of a flight, despite the airline having taken all reasonable measures to prevent the delay or cancellation of the flight.

In Europe, you may get compensation up to 600€ for a flight delay, cancellation, or overbooking, according to EU Regulation 261/2004 (EC261 in short).

Except if the cause for the disruption is regarded as an “extraordinary circumstance”.

Unfortunately, if your flight was disrupted because of extraordinary circumstances, you’re not entitled to compensation. EC261 states that in those situations, the airline cannot be held responsible for the events and is not liable to pay flight compensation to its passengers.

However, because the text of law doesn’t explicitly state what extraordinary circumstances are and aren’t, airlines have been known to abuse the term to get out of paying compensation to their passengers.

Indeed, according to Regulation EC 261, “extraordinary circumstances are deemed to exist where they are beyond the control of the airline and the circumstance is not inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier”.

In this guide, you will learn:

  • The complete list of extraordinary circumstances
  • What are NOT extraordinary circumstances
  • Your rights when your flight is disrupted by extraordinary circumstances
  • What to do if the airline claims extraordinary circumstances

The airline may owe you between 250 and 600€  for your delayed or canceled flight.

List of extraordinary circumstances

  • Coronavirus (COVID-19) and other global pandemics
  • Adverse weather conditions (“bad weather”)
  • Air traffic control restrictions
  • Union, airport staff, and air traffic control strikes
  • Bird strikes
  • Security risks
  • Medical emergencies
  • Political or civil unrest
  • Natural disasters
  • Hidden manufacturing defect on the aircraft

Pandemics, including COVID-19

The year 2020 gave the world a great example of pandemics as extraordinary circumstances disrupting the normal operation of scheduled flights. As a result of COVID-19 and the travel restrictions implemented to hinder its spread, thousands of flights were cancelled. And it seems like this could go on in 2021 as well.

Obviously, air carriers cannot be held responsible for the cancellation of flights due to travel restrictions. This means that, unfortunately, if your travel plans were put on hold because of coronavirus, you cannot get compensation from the airline. However, you may be entitled to a refund or voucher.

Adverse weather conditions (“bad weather”)

For bad weather to be considered “extraordinary circumstances”, it must be established that the meteorological conditions were inclement enough to prevent the operating air carrier from delaying or cancelling the flight.

For example, snowstorms, thick fog, heavy rains, and other events hindering visibility are indeed “extraordinary circumstances”. So are windstorms and crosswinds impeding safe take off or landing, thunderstorms, or volcanic ash falls (remember the 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland?).

However, as you will see in the next section on what are not extraordinary circumstances, it is sometimes within the airline’s control to operate a flight as planned despite bad weather. In those cases, inclement weather conditions are not extraordinary circumstances.

Air traffic control restrictions

Each airport has a very specific schedule that allows for sometimes several hundred flights to transit each day. Time slots to take off and land are attributed to air carriers by air traffic control officers to ensure the safety of everyone. But sometimes, those time slots change and the flight can no longer depart at the initially scheduled time.

Again, airlines cannot be held responsible for flight delays and cancellations under those circumstances, since they cannot go against decisions from the ATC officers. As a result, you won’t be able to successfully claim compensation for a flight disrupted because of ATC restrictions.

Union, airport staff, and air traffic control strikes

Industrial actions organized by airport personnel, including air traffic controllers, are not the airline’s responsibility. Air carriers thus aren’t liable to pay compensation for strikes organized by ground staff  like baggage handlers for instance.

It’s important to note, as we will see later, that strikes from the airline’s staff are deemed to be within their actual control, and are therefore not considered to be “extraordinary circumstances”.

Bird strikes

It may or may not surprise you that birds often collide with aircrafts, both when those are on the ground or in the air. When they cause damage to the plane, those collisions are known as bird strikes and considered extraordinary circumstances under European regulation.

Since it’s practically impossible for airlines to prevent this from happening, flight delay compensations won’t be paid to passengers when the flight is disrupted because of a bird strike.

Security risks

Security risk is a very broad term that includes the presence of an unruly passenger onboard the aircraft, forcing the pilots to land in emergency, as well as security issues at the airport. For example, a fire at the international terminal of Fiumicino airport in Rome in 2015 resulted in the cancellation of dozens of flights.

Medical emergencies

Medical emergencies require the plane to be diverted or returned back to the departure airport for an emergency landing, as a result of passenger sickness. Sickness of crew members causing the delay or cancellation of the flight, however, won’t be regarded as extraordinary circumstances and passengers should get compensation.

Political or civil unrest

Those events include terrorism and other events including acts of violence that threaten the safety of travellers (and, usually, the general population). An example of political or civil unrest regarded as an extraordinary circumstance would be the 2016 coup d’état attempt in Turkey, which paralized activity at Atatürk Airport in Istanbul.

Evidently, airlines have no control over those events, nor can they prevent them from happening. They cannot be held responsible for the disruption of their flights and aren’t liable to pay compensation for cancelled flights.

Natural disasters

Volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. Those “acts of God”, as they are sometimes called, are way out of the airline’s control. No compensation is due to passengers for cancelled or delayed flights caused by natural catastrophes.

Hidden manufacturing defect on the aircraft

Hidden manufacturing defects are more than mere technical problems. They are mechanical faults found in the aircraft or one of its components, that compromise the safety of the flight, that are unexpectedly revealed by the manufacturer or an authoritative body like the CAA, which existence was previously unknown to the manufacturer (it was hidden), and which affects several aircrafts or the entire fleet.

A recent example was the 2019 Boeing 737 Max fleet, which was grounded by several countries, including those of the European Union, following two suspicious crashes within 5 months.

Again, airlines are exempt from paying compensation when the flight cancellation was caused by the discovery of a hidden manufacturing defect.

What are NOT extraordinary circumstances?

  • Technical issues and operational problems
  • Knock-on effect
  • Airline personnel strikes
  • Crew shortage or sickness
  • “Manageable bad weather”
  • Boarding denials due to overbooking

Technical issues and operational problems

Technical problems are the most common excuses used by the airline to avoid paying passengers their due compensation. While some dishonest air carriers may try to pass technical problems as extraordinary circumstances, know that the European Court of Justice ruled that those didn’t exempt airlines from enforcing passengers’ right to compensation.

Indeed, in most cases, those technical issues are the result of the inherent operations of the airline and it is within the airline’s actual control to anticipate and fix those issues. Should your flight be cancelled or delayed because of technical problems, know that you may be entitled to compensation.

Knock-on effect

The same aircraft is used for several flights throughout the day. If a flight is delayed for one reason or another, then the next flights operated with the same aircraft are likely to be delayed as well. That’s called the “knock-on effect” and although some airlines may try to pass it as an extraordinary circumstance, it isn’t.

It is the airline’s responsibility to provide both crew members and aircraft for all of their scheduled flights. If they make the choice to use the same aircraft for several flights at the risk of causing disruptions to the flight schedule, they must bear the consequences and pay compensation when required by the law.

If your flight was cancelled or delayed because of the previous flight’s delay, then you may be entitled to compensation.

Airline personnel strikes

As mentioned earlier, unlike airport and ATC strikes, those of the airline’s staff are not regarded as extraordinary circumstances. It is considered to be within the airline’s power to prevent wildcat strikes from their personnel from taking place.

This means that if your flight was delayed or cancelled as a result of a strike from the airline’s staff, you may be entitled to compensation.

Crew shortage or sickness

If a member of the crew calls in sick before the flight and the flight is delayed or cancelled as a result, you’re entitled to compensation. The same applies when the airline says that “the crew had maxed out their flying hours”.

The airline is responsible for providing the crew. This means that they are expected to have a back-up crew member to replace unavailable staff.

“Manageable bad weather”

Not all bad weather conditions are extraordinary circumstances, because it is within the airline’s power to anticipate them and act accordingly in order to operate the flight as scheduled. For example, snowfalls are expected every winter in some areas of the globe, and airlines have the equipment to de-ice their aircraft on time. Similarly, heavy rains aren’t the same as a hurricane and may be manageable.

The point is that adverse weather conditions have to be examined on a case-by-case basis before they can be judged extraordinary circumstances or not. Even if the airline claims that your flight was disrupted for this reason, you might need the help of experts like ClaimCompass to determine whether they’re telling the truth or not, as we have the tools and expertise to do so.

Boarding denials due to overbooking

Finally, flight delays caused by the airline having to deny boarding to some passengers are not subject to the “extraordinary circumstance” excuse. Airlines regularly bump passengers off their flights because they sell more tickets than there are seats on board. They are required to ask for volunteers to take a different flight, and if there aren’t enough, they must choose passengers who won’t board the plane. The process can take some time and cause a delay.

Since it was within the airline’s control to avoid this situation (they should not have sold more tickets than they have seats), passengers whose flight was delayed because of boarding denials may get compensation. And the passengers who were denied boarding because the flight was overbooked may be entitled to denied boarding compensation.

Your rights when your flight is disrupted by extraordinary circumstances

Right to care

When your flight is delayed or cancelled because of extraordinary circumstances, you are not eligible for compensation. However, if the event results in a long delay, causing you to wait at the airport, the airline must enforce your “right to care”.

According to EU Regulation 261, the airline must provide:

  • Food and refreshments
  • A means of communications for you to make arrangements
  • Accommodation, in case of a long delay of more than 6 hours or flight cancellation, forcing you to stay overnight

Ticket refund, voucher, or alternate flight

The airline isn’t obligated to offer a voucher or refund to passengers whose flight was disrupted due to extraordinary circumstances.

In 2020 and 2021, however, airlines have implemented new guidelines specifically for cases of flights disrupted by coronavirus travel restrictions. If your flight has been affected, the airline should either let you change your flight, get a refund, or a voucher for a future flight.

What to do if the airline claims extraordinary circumstances?

Because it’s their best chance to avoid paying compensation, airlines often use the “extraordinary circumstances” excuse, even when it isn’t justified. They are counting on passengers' lack of knowledge regarding air passenger rights and inability to fact-check their claims.

If you think that the airline is lying and that you’re owed compensation, you may use the services of ClaimCompass. Our team has the expertise and means to check the cause of your flight’s disruption. If there is a doubt and your case is taken to court, the airline will be forced to provide proof of their claim, so if your claim is valid, you can be sure to receive the compensation you’re owed.

Check if the airline owes you a compensation for your disrupted flight: