A guide to the Germanwings vs. Ronny Henning case

Case facts

Claimant: Germanwings GmbH

Germanwings is the low-cost subsidiary of Lufthansa. The airline operates short-haul flights to 86 destinations across Europe and has a fleet of 44 planes based out of airport hubs in Cologne, Stuttgart, Hamburg, Berlin, Hannover, Dortmund and Düsseldorf.

  • Flight Number: 4U8752
  • Aircraft: Airbus A319
  • Route: Salzburg (Austria) – Cologne-Bonn (Germany)
  • Flight distance / duration: 540km (1 hr 10min)
  • Scheduled flight departure date: 11 May 2012
  • Scheduled flight departure time: 13:30 PM
  • Scheduled flight arrival time: 14:40 PM

Respondent: Ronny Henning

Mr. Henning was a passenger on a Germanwings flight from Salzburg to Cologne-Bonn Airport that had its departure delayed for unspecified reasons.

Lawyer, A. Skribe was appointed to defend Henning’s successful claim from being overturned following an appeal from the airline.

Court:

  • Landesgericht Salzburg (Salzburg Regional Court), Austria
  • European Court of Justice

What happened?

Flight delay circumstances

The cause of flight delay wasn’t fully disclosed I this instance as it was not being disputed by the airline – instead, Germanwings’ argument was centred on the delay duration.

The delay occurred ahead of take-off, with the plane eventually departing Salzburg at 16:40 PM (three hours and ten minutes behind schedule). However, the pilot did manage to make up time during the flight and the plane touched down in Cologne at 17:38 PM, before arriving at its stand at 17:43 PM, with the exit doors opened shortly after.

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Legal action

When Ronny Henning had is initial claim for compensation rejected by Germanwings on the grounds of the delay being less than 3 hours in length, he decided to pursue the claim through the Austrian court system.

Landesgericht Salzburg (Salzburg Regional Court)

Germanwings contested the delay duration by insisting that by landing on the runway two minutes under the required three-hour delay threshold, Mr. Henning’s flight did not fulfil the criteria set by EU Flight Compensation Regulation 261/2004.

The Salzburg Regional Court (Landesgericht Salzburg) disagreed with the airline’s representatives, and instead suggested that the flight’s arrival time should in fact be measured at the moment at which the aircraft doors open to allow passengers to disembark. The hearing concluded with the court demanding that Germanwings compensate Mr. Henning in accordance with EU Regulation 261/2004. Germanwings didn’t deem the ruling to be fair, so decided to lodge an appeal against it in an attempt to overturn the court’s decision.

Upon receiving Germanwings’ appeal request on 31 July 2013, the Austrian court decided to refer the issue to the European Court of Justice to give clarity regarding the measurement of flight delay duration.

European Court of Justice

The case was then heard by Advocate General Bot in Luxembourg. A preliminary hearing took place on 7 May 2014, during which the court was asked to consider the meaning of ‘arrival time’ as depicted in Articles 2, 5 and 7 of EU Regulation 261/2004.

Four potential definitions were considered for ‘time of arrival’:

  • 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
  • A time defined by the parties in the context of 'party autonomy' (contractual agreement)
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Decision

After assessing the validity of all four potential definitions, Advocate General Bot noted that when travelling by air, passengers are ‘confined’ for the duration of a flight, this situation remains the same even once the plane has landed and taxied to its stand at the airport terminal. Based on this notion, the court concluded that the only feasible definition for ‘arrival time’ would be the moment at which passengers are free to go about their normal activities without constraint – this was interpreted as the time at which at least one aircraft door is opened, thus allowing passengers to disembark freely.

In applying this rule, Mr. Henning’s delay was calculated as 3 hours 3 minutes, not 2 hours 58 minutes as Germanwings’ representatives were claiming.

Subsequently, when the European Court of Justice gave its final judgement on 4 September 2014, it was able to uphold the Salzburg Regional Court’s initial ruling and demand that €250 compensation be paid to Mr. Henning in accordance with EU Regulation 261/2004.

Case significance

Germanwings vs. Ronny Henning provided a landmark ruling in that it offered an alternative to the common definition of ‘flight arrival time’. In the past, many judges will have considered it to be the moment at which the plane is parked with chocks in position. In the case of Germanwings vs. Ronny Henning, the European Court of Justice instead opted to define arrival as the point at which passengers are free to leave the aircraft. The decision also overruled numerous European Regulations and International Air Transport Association (IATA) guidelines which depict flight arrival as the time at which the aircraft reaches its stand at the airport terminal.

Advocate General Bot’s judgement has been seen by many as being universally beneficial to air passengers. The definition it provides effectively lengthens flight durations; opening up more opportunities for passengers to claim compensation.

The precedent that has been set by the ruling has also been met with criticism. Unsurprisingly, airlines are particularly scathing, with many complaining that the ruling is artificial and overcomplicated in nature.

Ramifications

This Germanwings vs. Henning ruling, together with the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2014 Huzar v Jet2.com case, has unquestionably made it more difficult for airlines to successfully defend against claims made by passengers under EU Regulation 261/2004.

Firstly, it is likely that carriers will at the very least have to change the way they calculate scheduled arrival times. This will be particularly challenging given that the period of time between the aircraft arriving at the gate and the doors being opened is variable and is usually dependent on the speed at which airport ground staff arrange steps, footbridges or buses to be put in place to allow passengers to disembark and safely make their way to the airport terminal building.

The vast majority of airlines don’t even officially record the time at which the aircraft doors are opened. Somewhat unfairly, the revised direction provided by the Germanwings vs. Ronny Henning ruling implies that carriers must instead interpret the ‘chocks on’ time as being the time at which the doors would have been opened if the flight had ‘arrived’ on schedule.

Even if the pilot has been able to gain back time during a flight, the slightest delay caused by taxiing queues or tardy ground staff can leave the airline open to hundreds of potential compensation claims and severely impact the profitability of the flight.

This is of course good news for passengers all over Europe – by defining flight ‘arrival time’ as the point at which the first aircraft door is opened, the European Court of Justice has created more opportunities for travellers to claim flight delay compensation through EU Regulation 261/2004.

Making a claim

If you are on-board a late flight that is on the cusp of the three-hour threshold when landing at its destination Flight Delay Claims 4 U recommend that you take photographs or capture video footage showing that the doors have remained shut beyond the three-hour delay point before noting down the time at which passengers were free to leave the aircraft – this would be extremely valuable evidence should your case ever come to court.

If you are unsure about the eligibility of a flight delay you’ve suffered in the last six years, the team at Flight Delay Claims 4 U will be able to search back through flight data archives to find your specific flight and establish the delay duration for you before deciding whether to pursue a claim.

Submit your enquiry today and we’ll carry out a full assessment of your flight based on the details you provide. Once the facts of the case are established, our claim handlers can take care of every aspect of a claim on your behalf, including the appointment of a specialist solicitor who will use their extensive knowledge of EU regulations and case law to retrieve compensation from the airline in question.

There is nothing to lose – we handle claims on a ‘no win, no fee basis’ which means you will not be charged a penny unless we are successful in obtaining compensation on your behalf.