Court clarifies when fliers in Europe are due compensation

— -- The European Union's highest court ruled Thursday that airline passengers on flights that fail to arrive at their destination may be eligible for compensation under both European Union regulations and international law.

The ruling applies to all flights — including those by U.S. airlines — departing from 27 countries in the European Union, says Salvatore D'Acunto, who heads a passenger rights department of the European Commission.

The ruling clarifies when passengers can receive compensation when their travel plans are disrupted.

The EU Court of Justice's ruling in Luxembourg applied to a case involving seven passengers who sued Air France for compensation after the cancellation of their flight from Paris to Vigo in Spain in 2008.

The flight took off but returned to Paris after a mechanical problem. The passengers were booked onto other flights the next day, but only one was offered assistance by the airline.

EU regulations require airlines to assist and compensate passengers when a flight is canceled or delayed three hours or more. Its rules require airlines to reimburse or rebook passengers with canceled flights and provide them with meals, refreshments, phone calls and, if needed, hotel rooms and airport-hotel transportation.

Passengers might also be entitled to 250 euros, or $344.70 at Thursday's exchange rate, for canceled flights of 1,500 kilometers, or 932 miles, or less, 400 euros ($551.58) for flights between 1,500 and 3,500 kilometers, or 2,175 miles, or 600 euros ($827.37) for longer flights.

Under international law stipulated by the Montreal Convention in 1999, airlines may be liable for up to a maximum of 4,750 euros ($6,553.18) for delays, D'Acunto says.

Thursday's court ruling also made it clear, D'Acunto says, that airlines that fail to provide passenger assistance during long delays could be liable for hotel, restaurant and other expenses without them being requested under EU regulations by a passenger.

Steve Lott, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association of America, which represents major U.S. airlines, says the ruling only applies to departures from countries in the EU. As a result, he says, "the impact on U.S. airlines is likely to be limited."