EU court specifies actual arrival time of a flight

The actual arrival time of a flight is the time at which at least one of the doors of the aircraft is opened, according to a judgment passed by the European Courts of Justice (ECJ) in a case raised by Germany’s budget airline Germanwings.

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CVRIA) said that it is only at that time that the length of the delay for the purposes of any compensation may be determined.

The court said that the Germanwings flight from Salzburg to Cologne/Bonn took off with a delay of three hours and 10 minutes, the aircraft touched down on the tarmac of the runway at Cologne/Bonn airport with a delay of two hours and 58 minutes. When the aircraft reached its parking position, the delay was three hours and three minutes. The doors were opened shortly afterwards.

One of the passengers maintained 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 therefore claim compensation of €250, in line with a previous judgment of the court.

In Germanwings’ view, the actual arrival time is the time at which the plane touched down on the tarmac at Cologne/Bonn airport, with the result that the delay in relation to the scheduled arrival time is only two hours and 58 minutes and no compensation is payable.

The Austrian court before which the case between the passenger and Germanwings was brought therefore asked the Court of Justice which time corresponds to the actual arrival time of the aircraft.

The arrival time options discussed by the court were:

  • the time that the aircraft lands on the runway (‘touchdown’);
  • the time that the aircraft reaches its parking position and the parking brakes are engaged or the chocks have been applied (‘in-block time’);
  • the time that the aircraft door is opened;
  • or a time defined by the parties in the context of party autonomy

In its judgment, the court said the concept of ‘actual arrival time’ may not be defined on a contractual basis, but must be interpreted in an independent and uniform manner.

In that regard, it 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,” it said.

“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, of the fact that the passengers cannot use the ‘lost time’ to achieve the objectives which led them to choose precisely that flight. 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.”

“The situation of passengers on a flight does not change substantially when the aircraft touches down on the runway or when the aircraft reaches its parking position, as the passengers continue to be subject, in the enclosed space in which they are sitting, to various constraints. It is only when the passengers are permitted to leave the aircraft and the order is given to that effect to open the doors of the aircraft that the passengers cease to be subject to those constraints and may in principle resume their normal activities.”

The court concluded that the ‘arrival time’, which is used to determine the length of the delay to which passengers on a flight have been subject, corresponds to the time at which at least one of the doors of the aircraft is opened, the assumption being that, at that moment, the passengers are permitted to leave the aircraft

“The decision will have an immense effect on airlines.  On average the time from landing (touchdown) to taxing to the gate where the chocks are applied through to when the aircraft door is opened can be anything from 20mins upwards, every airport is different and these times therefore can vary dramatically,” said Adeline Noorderhaven at EUclaim UK. “With arrival time now set at when the doors open these additional minutes will make a dramatic difference to journey time and could see airlines having to pay out hefty compensation to passengers for delayed flights.”

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