A guide to the Denise McDonagh vs. Ryanair case

Case facts

Claimant: Denise McDonagh

Ms. McDonagh was due to fly back to Dublin following her holiday in Portugal on 17 April 2010 when her flight was cancelled due to the infamous volcanic ash cloud incident.

Legal representation was provided to her by J. Hennessy (Solicitor).

  • Route: Faro – Dublin
  • Flight distance / duration: 1,820km (3hr 5min)
  • Scheduled departure date: 17 April 2010

Defendant: Ryanair Ltd

The Dublin-based airline dominates the low-cost air travel market and is currently the largest flight operator in Europe, carrying 106 million passengers in 2016.

Ryanair appointed a legal team of barristers to file a defence against Ms. McDonagh’s claim.

Court:

  • Dublin Metropolitan District Court (10 November 2010)
  • European Court of Justice (22 March 2012)
  • European Court of Justice (31 January 2013)

What happened?

Flight cancellation circumstances

Denise McDonagh was due to fly from Faro to Dublin on 17 April 2010. Just three days before her Ryanair flight was due to depart, volcanic ash from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano began to spread eastwards from Iceland, with thick plumes covering large swathes of European airspace.

Due to poor visibility and risk of engine damage, air traffic authorities in several EU member states (including Ireland) decided to close airspace. The closures took place on 15 April 2010 and Irish airspace remained closed until 22 April 2010. As a consequence, Ryanair had to cancel Ms McDonagh’s flight and to make matters worse, the considerable backlog of Ryanair flights meant that she was unable to return to Dublin until 24 April 2010 – five days later than originally planned.

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Legal action

After paying for her own transport, meals and accommodation during the 5-day delay, McDonagh submitted a claim for expenses that amounted to €1,129. No flat-fee compensation was sought for the delay itself under Article 7 of EU Regulation 261/2004, as the volcanic ash cloud had already been defined as “extraordinary circumstances” by national authorities. Instead, the claimant was seeking reimbursement in relation to Ryanair’s failure to provide the relevant air passenger assistance that is set out by Articles 5 and 9 (e.g. local transport, accommodation, meal vouchers etc.).

The dispute escalated after Ryanair suggest that the magnitude of the event, which impacted more than 10,000 EU flights in total, should have been considered “super extraordinary”. The airline’s belief was that carriers should have been relieved of their obligation to provide basic air passenger support.

Dublin Metropolitan District Court

McDonagh vs. Ryanair was initially heard at Dublin Metropolitan District court on 10 November 2010. Due to the unprecedented nature of the case, the Judge requested a preliminary ruling from the European Court of Justice.

European Court of Justice

The Irish court’s referral was received by the European Court of Justice on 10 January 2011, but Advocate General Yves Bot did not give his preliminary ruling on the case until 22 March 2012.
There were five questions raised in the Dublin Metropolitan Court’s request for case referral – these fell into three broader categories. First of all, the Irish court wanted to establish whether there had been any previous events of a similar magnitude that could have been considered to be beyond the parameters of “extraordinary circumstances” as defined by EU Regulation 261/2004, and, if so, would an airline no longer be responsible for providing passenger assistance.

Secondly, the court wanted to understand if current regulations provide guidance regarding a potential cap on the proportional cost associated of the assistance provided to an individual in such cases.

Finally, if the answer to the either of the aforementioned questions was negative, the European Court of Justice would be required to assess the fairness of current regulations based on the balance of passenger and airline interests.

Decision

The definition of ‘extraordinary circumstances’ was the first aspect of this case to be considered by Advocate General Bot – in his assessment, he suggested that although the meaning of ‘extraordinary circumstances’ isn’t clearly defined in EU Regulation 261/2004, this category is designed to be all-encompassing in relation to events deemed to be beyond the control of an airline. As such, that there is no requirement to categorise circumstances as ‘particularly extraordinary’.

Ryanair’s concept of relinquished responsibility on the basis of “super extraordinary circumstances” was subsequently rejected by the court.

On the subject of placing restrictions on the duration and cost of the assistance provided to disrupted passengers, the outcome was similarly clear-cut. Advocate General Bot concluded that EU Regulation 261/2004 is to be applied proportionately (irrespective of the cost to the airline in question).

The court ultimately demanded that Ryanair reimburse the claimant to a level “necessary, appropriate and reasonable to make up for the shortcomings of the air carrier”.

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Case significance

The European Court of Justice ruling regarding McDonagh vs. Ryanair in 2013 was the latest in a series of judgements regarding passenger assistance and flight delay compensation. Numerous airlines have attempted to highlight flaws in EU Regulation 261/2004, such as a possible contradiction of the Montreal Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air (1999) and common principles of EU legislation such as ‘non-discrimination’ and ‘proportionality’.

The majority of cases heard by courts involve an airline contesting the “extraordinary circumstances” rule on the basis that it is not encompassing enough (e.g. technical faults excluded) – however McDonagh vs. Ryanair involves the airline challenging the rule based on the fact it is too encompassing (extraordinary events grouped together regardless of severity).

Three interesting points were posed by the McDonagh vs. Ryanair ruling:

Firstly, the application of ‘proportionality’. It is important for the law to provide balance rulings are fair to both the claimant and the defending airline. In the case of McDonagh vs. Ryanair, you would be forgiven for agreeing with Ryanair when they argued that expenses of €1,129 were disproportionate to a ticket fare of €98 – however, the European Court of Justice pointed to evidence that was provided by the UK government. The court was suitably convinced that airlines account for the cost of passenger care in the ticket prices that they charge. Advocate General Bot was quick to point out that Ryanair themselves had introduced an ‘EU 261’ surcharge of €2 per passenger in 2011 – on the basis that Ryanair carry around 100 million passengers a year and claim to have paid ‘over €100m’ in compensation for the whole of 2010, it can be safely assumed that the €2 surcharge would allow the airline to more than recover the relevant costs.

The second issue raised by McDonagh vs. Ryanair is the permissibility of high profile claims being made by individuals. For example, the majority of UK courts had historically paid more attention to claims made through National Enforcement Bodies (NEBs) than they did to those submitted by an individual. In the instance of Graham vs. Thomas Cook (2012) it was decreed that a breach of the passenger assistance obligations outlined in EU Regulation 261/2004 “does not give rise to a civil action for damages”. The European Court of Justice ruling that was made in relation to McDonagh vs. Ryanair in 2013 has suggested that domestic courts will no longer be able to take this stance when passing judgement on cases involving the denial of passenger care.

Finally, the case C-12/11 McDonagh vs. Ryanair highlights an issue regarding the robustness of claims based on economic rights depicted in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Ryanair’s argument was that a duty of care without firm boundaries would deprive airlines of the legitimate profits they’ve earned. However, the prominence of consumer protection provided by Article 169 of TFEU (Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union) means that it is normal for courts to favour claimants when balancing the fundamental rights of a passenger against the rights of an airline.

The clarity provided by Advocate General Bot’s ruling has given new impetus to individuals looking to claim expenses after being denied passenger care by their airline. McDonagh vs. Ryanair has shown that standard assistance (accommodation, meals, transport etc.) is a passenger entitlement; even if the circumstances behind a delay are far beyond the control of the airline.