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Agency Fees

Agency fees: Austrian court practice on reimbursements

According to Article 8 of Regulation 261/2004, passengers have the right to choose between reimbursement of the full cost of the ticket within 7 days or re-routing to their final destination in cases of denied boardings, cancellations, and significant delays. A question of major practical relevance arises regarding whether the wording “full cost of the ticket” includes the obligation for air carriers to reimburse any agency fees passengers had to pay during the booking process.

In its ruling C-601/17 (Harms/Vueling), the ECJ clarified that the reimbursement should encompass the price of the ticket, including the commission collected by a person acting as intermediary between the air carrier and the passenger (i.e., an agency fee), unless that commission was set without the knowledge of the air carrier.

While this ruling provided important guidance, it also raised a new question: What exactly does “knowledge of the air carrier” mean?

To fully grasp this question, it is crucial to understand how flight tickets are sold. Tickets are primarily sold either directly through the air carrier´s website or by utilizing a travel agency (either physically or online). In order to facilitate ticket sales by travel agencies, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) grants IATA-certified agencies the authority to issue tickets directly for its airline members.

Traditionally, these travel agencies acted as commercial agents for airlines and received service fees from them. However, over the last 20 years, numerous airlines have altered their pricing models to exclude service fee payments to travel agencies and promoted ticket purchases directly through their own websites. Consequently, travel agencies have adapted their business models and now add fees to the ticket prices paid by their customers, the passengers. Nonetheless, the travel agencies retain the right to issue flight tickets directly.

In response to C-601/17, passengers (represented by their lawyers or claim farms) argued that due to the special relationship between air carriers and travel agencies, reimbursements of ticket costs must include agency fees. They contended that air carriers are aware that travel agencies typically charge fees as part of their business model and that this general knowledge is sufficient to establish the air carrier´s obligation to reimburse the agency fees.

While there have been numerous German rulings on this topic, Austrian rulings, especially by the highly relevant Regional Court Korneuburg, have been scarce. Therefore, we are delighted to announce that our Aviation Team recently managed to obtain two favorable rulings from the Regional Court Korneuburg in this matter on behalf of one of our airline clients.

In these rulings (22 R 226/22y and 22 R 37/23f), the Regional Court Korneuburg (upon our appeals against decisions rendered by the District Court Schwechat) stated that the term “knowledge” used by the ECJ refers to the specific knowledge about the agency fee charged by the intermediary. The court emphasized that the different elements of a ticket, such as the price, must be approved by the air carrier, which can only occur with specific knowledge. The potential information rights of air carriers based on IATA agreements or the existence of incentive agreements that do not specify the amount of the agency fee do not alter this conclusion.

Don´t hesitate to contact our Aviation Team to learn more about passenger claims in Austria.

Re-routing obligations

Re-routing Obligations of Airlines in Austria

According to Article 5 (3) of Regulation 261/2004, operating air carriers are not required to make compensation payments to passengers if the cancellation (or substantial delay) was caused by extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken. However, the interpretation of this provision has led to a range of court decisions regarding the criteria of extraordinary circumstances and reasonable measures. This article will focus specifically on the reasonable measure of re-routing a passenger to their final destination, as interpreted by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and Austrian courts, particularly the Regional Court Korneuburg.

It must be kept in mind that to successfully defend against a claim for compensation payment, the operating air carrier must prove the existence of extraordinary circumstances and that all reasonable measures were taken to prevent the cancellation or substantial delay. Re-routing a passenger is considered one of these measures. Therefore, the air carrier’s re-routing of a passenger is a crucial factor in determining whether a claim for compensation should be rejected.

As a general rule, the air carrier must re-route the passenger in a way that allows them to reach their final destination as soon as possible.

In practice, it is often difficult to prove that the re-routing the air carrier chose was indeed the fastest option and we are regularly confronted with passengers (often represented by claim collecting companies) presenting a list of alternative flights that would have allowed them to reach their final destination sooner than with the flight chosen by the air carrier. In such cases, the air carrier must prove why the passengers have not been rebooked to these flights instead (e.g., because these flights were already fully booked).

The air carrier must consider all available flights and not just those operated by itself, a member of the same alliance or an air carrier, with which it has entered into a contractual relationship.[1] Further, it is obliged to even offer a flight if it assumes that the passenger will not accept it because of inconveniences linked thereto (such as an overnight stay at another airport)[2] and even if the passenger already booked an alternative flight themselves.[3]

The relevant timing of the air carrier´s assessment, to which flight the passenger should be rebooked, is when it is predictable that the passenger cannot be transported on the original flight, e.g., because this flight will be cancelled, or a delay of the first flight leg leads to the passenger missing his/her second flight leg.[4] To allow the court to assess this, the temporal components must be included in the air carrier´s defence.[5]

The air carrier must offer re-routing in “immediate temporal connection” with the announcement of the cancellation.[6] However, the air carrier is not obliged to re-route a passenger to a flight if such re-routing constituted an “intolerable sacrifice” for that air carrier in the light of the capacities of its undertaking at the relevant time.[7] The Regional Court for Commercial Matters Vienna (Handelsgericht Wien) once decided that for a low-cost carrier, re‑routing a passenger to a different carrier that typically charges ticket fares three times higher than the low-cost carrier´s ticket fares would constitute such an intolerable sacrifice.[8] It is unclear whether other courts, in particular the Regional Court Korneuburg, will have the same understanding.

If the air carrier fails to re-route the passenger in a way that allows them to reach their final destination as soon as possible, it may not only be obliged to pay a compensation payment (even if there have been extraordinary circumstances), but also to bear the costs of the passenger´s self-organised rebooking.[9]

The overview of criteria in connection with an air carrier´s obligation to re-route passengers given in this article aims to inform about relevant aspects to consider when assessing such cases. However, it also highlights the variety of (national) court rulings that must be examined when dealing with passenger claims. Therefore, it is essential to work with specialists and closely assess cases to have clarity about the chances of succeeding in court proceedings before investing substantial resources in them.

Don´t hesitate to contact our Aviation Team to learn more about passenger claims in Austria.

 

This article was also published on Lexology and can be accessed by clicking here.

 

[1] ECJ, C-74/19; Regional Court Korneuburg, 21.09.2021, 22 R 263/21p; RKO0000032.

[2] Regional Court Korneuburg, 22.09.2022, 22 R 176/22w; RKO0000043.

[3] Regional Court Korneuburg, 21.06.2022, 22 R 18/22k; RKO0000041.

[4] Regional Court Korneuburg, 23.07.2020, 22 R 124/20w; RKO0000015.

[5] Regional Court Korneuburg, 03.09.2020, 22 R 152/20p; RKO0000013.

[6] Regional Court Korneuburg, 21.06.2022, 22 R 18/22k; RKO0000041.

[7] ECJ, C-74/19; Regional Court Korneuburg, 21.09.2021, 22 R 263/21p; RKO0000032.

[8] Regional Court for Commercial Matters Vienna, 28.07.2022, 50 R 28/22g; RWH0000078.

[9] Austrian Supreme Court (OGH), 29.08.2018, 1 Ob 133/18t.

Repatriation Flights

Repatriation Flights

The height of the COVID-19 pandemic and the travel bans related thereto forced numerous airlines to cancel their flights and left passengers stranded far away from their homes. In many cases, these passengers were only able to return home by using special flights organised by their states – so-called repatriation flights.

In its ruling regarding case C-49/22 the European Court of Justice (ECJ) answered key questions raised by the Austrian Regional Court Korneuburg in connection with repatriation flights.

In the case at hand, the claimant booked (as part of a package holiday) the flights OS 17, scheduled for 7 March 2020 from VIE to MRU, and OS 18, scheduled for 20 March 2020 from MRU to VIE, both to be operated by Austrian Airlines. While flight OS 17 went ahead as scheduled, flight OS 18 was cancelled due to the measures taken by the Austrian government due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On 19 March the claimant was informed about the cancellation and the possibility to return to VIE by using a repatriation flight organised by the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was scheduled for 20 March at the flight time originally reserved for OS 18 and operated by Austrian Airlines under OS 1024. The claimant and his wife registered for this repatriation flight and had to pay an obligatory contribution of EUR 500 per person.

The claimant eventually filed a lawsuit against Austrian Airlines, demanding compensation of the obligatory contribution amounting to EUR 1,000 while referring to Regulation 261/2004. The District Court Schwechat decided in the claimant´s favour, which led to an appeal by Austrian Airlines and a request for a preliminary ruling of the ECJ.

The ECJ decided that a repatriation flight does not constitute a “re-routing, under comparable transport conditions, to [the] final destination” within the meaning of Article 8(1)(b) of Regulation 261/2004. Therefore, operating air carriers are not obliged to offer repatriation flights to passengers whose flights have been cancelled.

The ECJ further ruled that passengers do not have a right to reimbursement of obligatory contributions to repatriation flights at the expense of the operating air carrier on the basis of Regulation 261/2004.

Don´t hesitate to contact our Aviation Team to learn more about passenger claims in Austria.

Unexpected absence of a crew member

In its ruling in joined cases C-156/22 to C-158/22 the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decided that the unexpected absence of a crew member does not constitute extraordinary circumstances and can, therefore, not release an operating air carrier from its obligation to pay compensation to passengers in case of cancellations or great delays.

The case at hand concerns a flight that should have been operated by TAP from Stuttgart (Germany) to Lisbon (Portugal), on 17 July 2019 with a departure scheduled at 6.05. However, on the morning of this day, at 4.15, the co-pilot that should have operated the flight concerned was found dead in his hotel bed. Shocked by this event, the whole crew declared itself unfit to fly. As there was also no replacement staff available in Stuttgart (outside TAP’s base), the flight was cancelled. The passengers were transported to Lisbon on a replacement flight scheduled at 16.40 on the same day.

The ECJ decided that the unexpected absence – due to illness or death of a crew member whose presence is essential to the operation of a flight – which occurred shortly before the scheduled departure of that flight, does not fall within the concept of extraordinary circumstances.

This is in line with the ECJ´s prior court practice that declared that measures relating to the staff of the operating air carrier fall within the normal exercise of the air carrier´s activities and, therefore, are not suitable for constituting extraordinary circumstances that could relieve an air carrier from its obligation to pay compensation to its passengers.

Don´t hesitate to contact our Aviation Team to learn more about passenger claims in Austria.

Strikes in Europe as extraordinary circumstances

Strikes in Europe as extraordinary circumstances

The aviation sector in Europe is currently experiencing a substantial number of strikes. There are nationwide protests in France due to a reform of the retirement system, strikes organised by the union for employees in the traffic sector in Germany, works meetings at Austrian Airlines, strikes by the security staff at London Heathrow airport, and strikes by the ground-handling staff of Swissport in Spain.

As a result, air carriers are forced to delay or cancel numerous flights and are confronted with unsatisfied passengers – and their claims for compensation payments under Regulation 261/2004. The question arises if the current strikes in Europe can lead to extraordinary circumstances within the meaning of Art 5 (3) of this regulation and could, therefore, exempt air carriers from their payment obligations.

This article aims to illustrate the relevant criteria when assessing strikes and to give an overview of court practice of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and Austrian courts on different categories of strikes.

The principles:

Already in its ruling C‑549/07, the ECJ stated that for events to be regarded as extraordinary, they (i) must not be inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier concerned and (ii) must be beyond the actual control of that carrier on account of its nature or origin.

These principles must also be kept in mind when evaluating cases of strikes.

Categories of strikes:

Since there is a variety of cases when it comes to strikes, a categorization is necessary to give general answers to types of strikes based on the principles mentioned above.

Strikes by the air carrier´s employees concerning demands vis-a-vis the air carrier

This category includes strikes that aim to enforce demands vis-a-vis the air carrier, especially for better working conditions or higher salaries.

The ECJ dealt with such cases on several occasions and concluded that such strikes, in general, do not constitute extraordinary circumstances. This is in line with the abovementioned principles, because such strikes are often inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of an air carrier and not beyond its actual control.

Examples of cases in which the ECJ stated that such strikes cannot constitute extraordinary circumstances are C-195/17 concerning “wildcat strikes” (the spontaneous absence of a significant part of the flight crew staff), and C-287/20 and C‑28/20, both concerning strikes organised by a union to enforce higher salaries.

Strikes by the air carrier´s employees for other reasons

This category is not as common as the first category, but currently of special relevance due to the numerous strikes France in connection with the reform of the French retirement system. The reasons for such strikes are not connected to the air carrier and it is not within the air carrier´s power to meet the demands of the strikes.

Such strikes are generally regarded to constitute extraordinary circumstances, because they are not inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of an air carrier and are beyond its actual control. Consequently, the ECJ stated in its ruling C-28/20 that strikes that originate from demands that only the public authorities can satisfy are capable of constituting extraordinary circumstances.

Strikes by others than the air carrier´s employees

In cases, in which the employees of other entities are on strike, it must be differentiated.

If an air carrier chooses to use another company to perform tasks that typically fall within its own responsibilities, such as check-in, ground-handling or de-icing of aircraft, strikes of the employees of such companies must be treated as if the air carrier´s own employees would have been on strike. Therefore, if such strikes concern demands vis-a-vis these companies, they can generally not constitute extraordinary circumstances, while strikes for other reasons can.

Consequently, the Austrian court for commercial matters (Handelsgericht Wien) in case 1 R 87/22y and the district court Schwechat in cases 20 C 221/20f, 20 C 98/20t and 20 C 234/20t decided that strikes of employees of a ground-handling company used by the air carrier, that protest a decision of an Austrian authority, can constitute extraordinary circumstances.

Strikes by employees of entities which are not used by an air carrier to perform tasks that typically fall within its own responsibilities, such as airport security or air traffic control, are generally regarded to be capable of constituting extraordinary circumstances.

In its ruling C-28/20, the ECJ states that strikes that are external to the activity of the air carrier, such as strike actions taken by air traffic controllers or airport staff, may constitute extraordinary circumstances. The Austrian regional court Korneuburg reaches the same conclusion in its cases 22 R 209/21x and 22 R 9/22m that concern a strike by air traffic control employees.

Closing remarks:

It should be highlighted that even in cases of extraordinary circumstances air carriers are only exempt from their obligations to make compensation payments if all reasonable measures within the meaning of Article 5 (3) of Regulation 261/2004 have been taken by them. Furthermore, Austrian courts usually demand detailed explanations and evidence regarding extraordinary circumstances. In practice, many court cases are lost because air carriers cannot meet these requirements and not because the strike in question was not capable of constituting extraordinary circumstances.

Therefore, it is essential to work with specialists in this field and to closely assess each case to have clarity about the chances of succeeding in court proceedings before investing substantial resources in them. Don´t hesitate to contact our Aviation Team to learn more about passenger claims in Austria.

Consequences of a travel agency´s actions for air carriers

Consequences of a travel agency´s actions for air carriers

In two recent decisions, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) dealt with the consequences of a travel agency´s actions for air carriers in context with Regulation 261/2004.

In case C-307/21, the passengers booked flights from Düsseldorf to Tangier via the travel agent Kiwi.com. The air carrier was provided with an e-mail address, which was most likely automatically generated by Kiwi.com and to which the passengers had no access. In the following, the air carrier sent an e-mail to this e-mail address in order to inform the passengers about the cancellation of their flight. Since this e-mail has been sent 14 days prior to the date of the scheduled flight, it would have complied with Article 5 (1) (c) (i) of Regulation 261/2004, resulting in the passengers not being entitled to receive a compensation within the meaning of Article 7 of Regulation 261/2004. However, Kiwi.com did not forward this e-mail to the passengers.

The CJEU decided on 27 September 2022 that the air carrier is obliged to pay a compensation to the passengers if the travel agency didn´t forward the air carrier´s e-mail in due time even if the air carrier was not aware of the fact that the e-mail address it has been provided with could only be used to contact the travel agency and not the passengers directly.

In case C‑436/21, a passenger booked the following itinerary: Stuttgart-Zurich-Philadelphia-Kansas City. The flight from Stuttgart to Zurich was operated by Swiss International Air Lines AG, while the other two flights were operated by American Airlines. This itinerary was booked via a travel agency in the form of a single electronic ticket with a single user price for the entire journey and the number of this ticket was displayed on the boarding passes relating to the flights. While the previous flights were on time, the flight from Philadelphia to Kansas City was delayed by more than four hours.

During the proceedings initiated in Germany against American Airlines, the involved German courts stated that Regulation 261/2004 does not apply, since American Airlines did not operate a flight departing from the territory of a member state of the EU. According to the German courts, there was nothing to indicate that American Airlines had undertaken to transport the passenger from Stuttgart to Kansas City, or that it had assumed responsibility for that transportation under a code sharing agreement. Subsequently, the case was brought before the German Supreme Court and the CJEU.

In its ruling C-436/21 the CJEU stated that – in the interest of the high level of protection for passengers – the concepts of “connecting flights” and “reservations” must be interpreted broadly, which lead to the CJEU´s decision that there has been a connecting flight even though the operating air carriers did not have a specific legal relationship. Therefore, the place of departure (Stuttgart, Germany) is of relevance, Regulation 261/2004 is applicable, and the passenger may be entitled to a compensation payment for the delay of his last flight leg.

Don´t hesitate to contact our Aviation Team to learn more about the consequences of a travel agency´s actions for air carriers in connection with Regulation 261/2004 and about passenger claims in Austria in general.

Legal fees and no-reply email addresses

Legal fees and no-reply email addresses

Many questions of our airline clients concern legal fees demanded by passengers and under what circumstances these fees must be paid. Especially when letters of notice are sent to no-reply email addresses and subsequently lawsuits are filed, there are often uncertainties. The aim of today´s article is to briefly illustrate the Austrian system concerning the reimbursement of legal fees and to answer the question if legal fees must be paid when a letter of notice has merely been sent to a no-reply email address.

Airlines are often confronted by letters of notice sent by a lawyer with which not only a ticket reimbursement or compensation payment is demanded, but also legal fees for the lawyer´s work. Such legal fees must only be paid if the involvement of a lawyer was necessary for the passenger. This is the case if, e.g., the passenger already contacted the airline himself, but the airline refused to pay the demanded amount or did not react to the passenger´s query. Additionally, according to court practice, it can be necessary to involve a lawyer if the airline fails to inform the passenger about his rights granted by the Regulation 261/2004 (in violation of Article 14 of this regulation).

In Austrian court proceedings, the prevailing party is entitled to receive a reimbursement of its legal fees by the opponent (in case of a partial victory: on a pro rata basis). These legal fees are calculated in accordance with the Lawyers Tariffs Act (Rechtsanwaltstarifgesetz), regardless of any possible separate agreement between lawyer and client regarding the remuneration.

However, also these legal fees are only reimbursed if the respective actions (e.g., filing a lawsuit) have been necessary. If the passenger (or his lawyer) did not contact the airline before filing a lawsuit, the airline can refuse to pay his legal fees and even demand reimbursement for its own legal fees if it acknowledges and pays the passenger´s claim at the first moment possible.

The Commercial Court Vienna had to deal with a case in which the passenger did not contact the airline first and his lawyer sent a letter of notice only to a no-reply email address used by the airline. The lawyer ignored the standardized reply email that asked him to use another email address for his query and filed a lawsuit. Subsequently, the airline acknowledged and paid the claim without undue delay, refused to pay the passenger´s legal fees and demanded reimbursement for its own legal fees. The Commercial Court Vienna decided in the airline´s favor (case number: 60 R 42/21p).

Don´t hesitate to contact our Aviation Team to learn more about the system of legal fees passengers may demand to in connection with passenger claims and passenger claims in Austria in general.

The breakdown of an airport´s refueling system constitutes extraordinary circumstances

The breakdown of an airport´s refueling system constitutes extraordinary circumstances

On 7 July 2022, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decided that the breakdown of an airport´s refueling system constitutes extraordinary circumstances within the meaning of Article 5 (3) of Regulation 261/2004 (case C-308/21).

In its reasoning, the ECJ once more pointed out the criteria it regards relevant when it comes to extraordinary circumstances: the events that occurred must not be inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier concerned and they must be beyond the air carrier´s actual control.

Regarding the first criterion, the ECJ stated that, in principle, refueling operations fall within the scope of the normal exercise of an air carrier´s activity and that, therefore, a technical issue arising during the refueling would not be suitable to constitute extraordinary circumstances. However, a general failure in the refueling system managed by the airport must be treated differently than a technical issue that, by its nature, is only confined to a single aircraft. Therefore, the ECJ came to the conclusion that such general failures of the refueling system are not inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier concerned.

Regarding the second criterion, the ECJ once again highlighted the importance of the distinction between “internal” and “external” events, whereas only “external” events are regarded to be beyond the air carrier´s actual control. Therefore, if the refueling system at an airport is managed by this airport or a third party, a general breakdown of this system is regarded to be beyond the air carrier´s control.

Since both criteria of extraordinary circumstances are met, the ECJ decided that the general breakdown of an airport´s refueling system constitutes extraordinary circumstances. Therefore, the respective air carrier is not obliged to pay compensation to the passengers, provided that all reasonable measures were taken.

Don´t hesitate to contact our Aviation Team to learn more about passenger claims in Austria.

Strikes because of an authority´s decision constitute extraordinary circumstances

Strikes because of an authority´s decision constitute extraordinary circumstances

On 30 June 2022, the district court Schwechat ruled in three cases we are handling for a client that strikes constitute extraordinary circumstances if the reason for the strikes is an authority´s decision. The court argues that such strikes that are based on demands that can only be fulfilled by authorities (and not the airline itself) are beyond the airline´s control. In the cases at hand, not the airline´s employees, but the ground handling staff was striking and thereby disturbing the normal operations.

These rulings are in line with the ECJ´s ruling C-28/20, in which the ECJ mentioned: “If, however, such a strike originates from demands which only the public authorities can satisfy and which, accordingly, are beyond the actual control of the air carrier concerned, it is capable of constituting an ‘extraordinary circumstance’ […]”

Therefore, airlines are not obliged to pay compensation (Art 7 of Reg 261/2004) if flights are cancelled or significantly delayed due to such strikes, provided that all reasonable measures in connection therewith are taken.

Don´t hesitate to contact our Aviation Team to learn more about when strikes constitute extraordinary circumstances and passenger claims in Austria.

Stopovers and the Regulation 261/2004

Stopovers and the Regulation 261/2004

In February 2022, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) rendered two decisions regarding the relevance of stopovers in connection with jurisdiction (C-20/21) and the scope of the Regulation 261/2004 (C‑451/20).

In case C-20/21, a passenger booked a flight from Warsaw to Male with a stopover in Frankfurt (single booking). The first flight leg (from Warsaw to Frankfurt) was delayed and, therefore, the passenger missed the second flight leg (from Frankfurt to Male). Subsequently, the passenger sued the airline in Frankfurt.

The ECJ ruled that the court in Frankfurt has no jurisdiction, because due to Frankfurt merely being a stopover, it must not be regarded as “place of performance” which would be necessary to establish jurisdiction.

In case C-451/20, a passenger booked a flight from Chişinău (Moldova) to Bangkok with a stopover in Vienna (single booking). The first flight leg (from Chişinău to Vienna) was cancelled less than seven days prior to the scheduled departure and the passenger was rebooked to fly from Chişinău to Bangkok with a stopover in Istanbul. The passenger then sued the airline in Schwechat (competent court for Vienna airport).

The ECJ ruled that the Regulation 261/2004 is not applicable in this case since both the place of departure and the place of arrival are located outside the European Union. The fact that the planned stopover in Vienna is located inside the European Union does not lead to this case falling within the Regulation´s scope.

On a side note: in case C-559/16 the ECJ already clarified that the distance mentioned in Article 7 (1) of the Regulation 261/2004 relates to the distance calculated between the first point of departure and the final destination. Therefore, also in this regard stopovers are not of relevance according to the ECJ.

Don´t hesitate to contact our Aviation Team to learn more about the relevance of stopovers in connection with Regulation 261/2004.