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Extraordinary Circumstances: How They Affect Compensation

Extraordinary Circumstances: How They Affect Compensation

Anton Radchenko
Reviewed by a licensed lawyer.
Last Updated: July 22, 2024

Air travel has become more and more reliable in recent years, but even the airlines with the best on-time performance rating can still be plagued by delays and cancellations. When this happens, many air passengers can get compensated for the inconvenience unless the disruption was caused by extraordinary circumstances. So, in this article, we’ll explain what constitutes extraordinary circumstances and how it affects airline compensation in the US, UK, EU, and Canada.

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What Are Extraordinary Circumstances

Simply put, extraordinary circumstances are events outside the airlines’ control that lead to flight disruptions like flight delays and cancellations and even denied boarding. This might seem like a handy way for carriers to avoid paying passengers flight compensation, but extraordinary circumstances are more than just an excuse for delays and cancellations. In fact they can usually be defined as an event that could not be avoided or prevented despite the airline’s best efforts.

Examples of Extraordinary Circumstances

  1. Dangerous weather including severe thunderstorms, hurricanes, blizzards, dense fog, or other sudden conditions that can create safety concerns and lead to delays and cancellations.
  2. Bird strikes where a bird (or sometimes other wildlife) collides with the airplane and causes damage. This leads to follow-up maintenance that was unscheduled and can result in disrupted flights.
  3. Issues with air traffic control such as employee strikes or restrictions caused by airspace congestion.
  4. Airport strikes
  5. Airport problems such as damaged runways or technical failures that are beyond the airline’s control
  6. Medical emergencies where the aircraft must be diverted or forced to land to address the issue. 
  7. Natural Disasters including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods, and tsunamis
  8. Security threats/risks that lead to airport lockdowns or flight restrictions. This can also include unruly passengers whose behaviour necessitates a diversion or emergency landing.
  9. Political unrest like wars, severe political instability, travel bans, and civil unrest.
  10. Unforeseen natural phenomena, also called Acts of God, like volcanic ash clouds or other sudden and unforeseen natural events that lead to flight disruptions.
  11. Manufacturers defects with the aircraft that are outside the scope of routine maintenance.

Extraordinary Circumstances for Flight Delays

Common Misconceptions

There are some situations that can seem confusing when trying to figure out if extraordinary circumstances apply.

  • Crew shortages, for example, are commonly believed to be outside the airline’s control. But this isn’t the case. In fact, staffing issues, including airline strikes and other scheduling problems, do not fall into the category of extraordinary situations because carriers are expected to prevent staffing related flight disruptions.  
  • Technical issues are another cause for delays and cancellations that can seem beyond the airline’s control. But again, airlines are expected to carry out routine maintenance on their aircraft to prevent such problems from arising. The only time a technical problem could qualify as an extraordinary circumstance is when it was caused by a manufacturer’s defect or if a safety concern arises that wasn’t something that the airline could have foreseen or prevented.
  • Overbooked flights, where passengers are involuntarily denied boarding, are commonly seen as beyond the airline’s control. This couldn’t be further from the truth as airlines routinely overbook flights as a way to offset any last minute cancellations and maximise profits.

One exception to this could be if a safety issue arose in the originally scheduled aircraft that caused the carrier to switch to a smaller plane. If this happens then the denied boarding incident is attributed to the safety concern and not to overbooking.

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How it Affects on Airline Compensation

In Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, where airlines are required to compensate passengers for certain flight disruptions, extraordinary circumstances can exempt airlines from compensating passengers. This is because of the understanding that airlines are unable to control these situations and should not be held accountable for delays or cancellations that happen as a result.

At the same time, however, airlines are still required to provide assistance to their passengers by offering food, drink, accommodation, refunds, and alternate flights depending on the situation.

how extraordinary circumstances affect airline compensation in the US, UK, EU, and Canada

United States

The US Department of Transportation is responsible for overseeing passenger rights in the United States, but unlike the EU, UK, and Canada, the US has no federal laws requiring airlines to compensate passengers for flight disruptions. So, when it comes to extraordinary circumstances, each airline will outline how it will take care of passengers in their contract of carriage. Most legacy airlines in the US will help passengers by offering alternative flights and care at the airport, but again, each airline has its own policies.

United Kingdom and the European Union

The air passenger rights regulations in both the UK and EU make provisions for passengers affected by flight delays and cancellations. EU and UK 261/2004 both stipulate that airlines compensate passengers for flight disruptions, but if extraordinary circumstances are at play then they can avoid making compensation payouts. Regardless of what caused the flight disruption, the carrier must still provide you care and assistance as well as alternate flights and refunds depending on the situation. 

Canada

As with the UK and EU, Canada requires airlines to compensate passengers for delays and cancellations unless extraordinary circumstances are to blame for the disruption. The Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR) that is governed by the Canadian Transport Agency (CTA) outlines passenger rights and requires carriers to give passengers care, assistance, refunds, and alternate bookings when flight disruptions occur, even if they are the result of extraordinary circumstances.

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What You Can Do

Unless you’re travelling in the United States, extraordinary circumstances can play a big role in whether or not you receive airline compensation. As you can see, it helps to understand what counts as extraordinary and unavoidable as airlines have been known to use these events as a way of evading compensation. So, even though air passenger rights regulations can vary among countries, the basic principle remains. 

If you have a flight delay or cancellation, find out immediately what caused the disruption and keep as much detailed information about the event as possible. Ask airport and airline staff about what happened, check social channels and other airlines to see if the disruption was limited to the airline or if it affected everyone in the airport.

tip

If there are widespread delays and cancellations, chances are it was caused by an extraordinary circumstance.

People Also Ask

What counts as extraordinary circumstances for flight delays?

Extraordinary circumstances are events beyond the control of airlines, releasing them from the obligation to pay compensation such as third party strikes, civil unrest, inclement weather conditions, natural disasters, etc. 

Remember that even though you cannot get compensation in such cases, you can still ask for care and assistance from the airline staff. It is among your passenger rights for over 2-hour delays.

Can I get flight delay compensation due to air traffic control (ATC)?

According to the delayed flight compensation rules, any delay caused due to the decision or action of the ATC, such as air traffic control strikes or closure of the runway is considered an extraordinary circumstance. This means that the airline does not have to pay money in such cases. 

However, many airlines overuse this argument to avoid payment. So, it is always a good idea to examine what actually happened. 

Flight delay due to technical problem: does my flight qualify for compensation?

Under EU Regulations re-flight delays, disruption due to technical problems is not viewed as an extraordinary circumstance except for hidden manufacturing defects. This means that the airline may pay compensation to you if your case meets other conditions as well.

Missed flight due to medical emergency: am I entitled to a refund?

No, a refund is given only in extreme cases such as the death of a passenger or his travel partner from the same booking. According to EU Regulation, the refund will be paid to the immediate family members upon the demonstration of the death certificate.

Can I claim for a delayed flight due to weather?

Yes, you may get flight compensation since only adverse weather conditions in aviation are seen as extraordinary circumstances. Weather and flight delays due to some other reasons, such as operational problems, are very nuanced. 

Often the airlines mislead passengers saying weather conditions have made the flight impossible. Their argument is valid only if they made everything possible to prepare for the flight and other airlines failed to perform their flights too. Otherwise, you may always have the right to flight delay compensation due to snow or other conditions.

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