Connecting flights and reservation through a travel agency. The Court of Justice rules on the compensation for air passengers in the event of a long delay to a flight

On 6 October 2022, the Court of Justice handed down its judgment in Case C‑436/21, flightright GmbH v American Airlines Inc., on the interpretation of Articles 2, 3 and 7 of Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 as well as of Article 2 of and the Annex to the Agreement between the European Community and the Swiss Confederation on Air Transport(“Agreement”). The request has been made in proceedings between flightright GmbH (“flightright”), a company providing legal assistance for air passengers, and American Airlines Inc. (“American Airlines”) concerning compensation under Regulation No 261/2004 requested due to a long delay to a flight’s arrival at its final destination.

A passenger concluded an agency contract with a travel agency in the form of a single electronic ticket for, first, a flight from Stuttgart to Zurich operated by Swiss International Air Lines AG and, second, two flights connecting Zurich to Philadelphia and Philadelphia to Kansas City respectively, operated by American Airlines. The number of that ticket appeared on the boarding passes for those flights, indicating that American Airlines was providing services, and the ticket contained a single reservation number relating to the entire journey. While the flights from Stuttgart to Zurich and from Zurich to Philadelphia, respectively, ran to schedule, the arrival of the flight from Philadelphia to Kansas City was delayed by more than four hours. Flightright therefore, to which the rights arising from that delay had been assigned, claimed compensation of EUR 600 from American Airlines.

Since the action was dismissed both at first instance and on appeal, flightright appealed to the Bundesgerichtshof(Federal Court of Justice; the “referring court”) which, in light of the need to interpret the relevant European legislation, decided to stay the proceedings and to refer three questions to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling.

By its first question, the referring court asked whether Article 2(h) of Regulation No 261/2004 must be interpreted as meaning that the concept of a ‘connecting flight’ covers a transport operation made up of a number of flights operated by separate operating air carriers which do not have a specific legal relationship, where those flights have been combined by a travel agency which has charged an overall price and issued a single ticket for that operation, with the result that a passenger departing from an airport located in the territory of a Member State who suffers a long delay to the arrival at the destination of the last flight may rely on the right to compensation pursuant to Article 7 of that regulation.

According to the Court, the passenger in question had a ticket, within the meaning of Article 2(f) of Regulation No 261/2004, constituting proof that the reservation for the entire journey from Stuttgart to Kansas City had been accepted and registered by a tour operator, as provided for in point (g) of that article. Such a transport operation must therefore be regarded as being based on a single reservation and, as such, as a “connecting flight” according to Regulation No 261/2004.

In view of the answer to the first question, the Court deemed it unnecessary to answer the second or third ones, by which the referring court asked, respectively, i) if it is sufficient if two successive connecting flights, to be operated by the same air carrier, are combined in a reservation of the kind described in the first question, and ii) if Article 2 of the Agreement and the reference to Regulation No 261/2004 in the Annex to that agreement are to be interpreted as meaning that that regulation also applies to passengers boarding a flight to a third country at an airport in Switzerland.

Marco Stillo