(CN) - The opening of at least one plane door may indicate flight arrival time, Europe's highest court ruled Thursday, weighing in on a case where passengers seek compensation for late arrivals.
The European Court of Justice has tackled the issue of paying off passengers for delayed flights numerous times since 2009, when the court affirmed
that airlines are on the hook for delays of more than three hours.
Since then, air carriers have been fighting several aspects of the EU traveler's bill of rights, including stiff penalties for cancelations caused by strikes
On Thursday, the Luxembourg-based high court again clarified the law, this time defining what constitutes an arrival.
In this case, a Germanwings flight from Salzburg to Cologne-Bonn took off more than three hours and 10 minutes late, made up some time in the air, and touched down just two hours and 58 minutes late.
By the time the plane parked at the gate, however, the flight was three hours and three minutes late. One passenger who filed suit said the delay required nearly $325 in compensation - despite the fact that the basic, round-trip fare on Germanwings between Salzburg and Cologne-Bonn currently runs just under $130.
Despite the airline's argument, the high court agreed that a flight in the EU has only officially arrived when at least one door is open and the passengers could conceivably disembark.
"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," the four-page ruling states. "In such circumstances, passengers are unable to carry on, without interruption, their personal, domestic, social or business activities. It is only once the flight has ended that they are able to resume their normal activities." The court continued:
"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, since the time by which the scheduled duration of the flight has been exceeded, represents 'lost time' in the light of the fact that the passengers concerned cannot use it to achieve the objectives which led them to go at the desired time to the destinations of their choice."
Noting that its definition of arrival differs from EU regulations and International Air Transport Association notions of "gate-to-gate" flight times, the court said those rules apply to air navigation and slot allotment and not to passenger comfort.
"The definitions that they give cannot be regarded as relevant for the interpretation of corresponding terms in the context of EU travel law, which is aimed exclusively at conferring minimum rights on passengers who are subject to various inconveniences because they are denied boarding against their will or have their flights cancelled or delayed," the court concluded.