Court rules that airlines must prioritise passengers with reduced mobility
On 23 June 2022, the Frankfurt Regional Court dealt with an airline’s obligations towards passengers with restricted mobility and the resulting liability.(1)
The two plaintiffs booked flights from Frankfurt to Budapest and from Budapest to St Petersburg via an online travel agency (OTA). One of the plaintiffs used a wheelchair. The defendant was the operating carrier for both flights. The OTA made individual reservations for each flight under separate booking numbers but issued a single booking confirmation and listed both flights on a single e-ticket. The transfer time in Budapest was 45 minutes.
According to the plaintiffs, the flight from Frankfurt to Budapest arrived 20 minutes late. The crew allowed them to disembark only after all other passengers had left, so they missed their onward flight. They had to book new flights to St Petersburg with another airline and arrived more than three hours late.
The plaintiffs claimed compensation for the delay they had experienced as well as the reimbursement of the costs for the alternative tickets. They were of the opinion that they had a single booking for the entire route from Frankfurt via Budapest to St Petersburg. According to the plaintiffs, due to the delay of the first flight, they had missed their connecting flight and reached their final destination more than three hours late. Furthermore, the defendant had allowed insufficient time for the connection and had failed to inform passengers accordingly.
The defendant argued that the flight to St Petersburg was not a connecting flight, as was documented by the individual booking numbers. The airline did not even market these flights as connecting flights. The OTA had combined the flights without the knowledge and approval of the airline.
Frankfurt Local Court
The Frankfurt Local Court dismissed the claim at first instance. The Court held that the reservation made by the plaintiffs was not a single booking with a direct connecting flight. Therefore, the passengers were not entitled to compensation under the EU Flight Compensation Regulation.(2) The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s claim for damages under national law, since the passengers could not prove the delay of the first flight. As two separate bookings had been made, the defendant had not been obliged to inform the passengers that the connecting time was too short.
The plaintiffs filed an appeal, which was partly successful.
Frankfurt Regional Court
The Frankfurt Regional Court partially overruled the Frankfurt Local Court’s decision and ordered the defendant to reimburse the costs of the alternative tickets. The Court justified this result by stating that a breach of contract had occurred. Even though the plaintiffs could not prove that they had booked any special wheelchair services, the defendant was obliged to assist the plaintiffs to disembark in such a way that they could have reached the onward flight.
Pursuant to article 11(1) of the EU Flight Compensation Regulation, operating carriers must prioritise persons with reduced mobility. This, according to the Court, constituted a secondary contractual obligation under German national law. Irrespective of whether the plaintiffs had made a single booking, the defendant knew from the two bookings in its system that they had to reach an onward flight. Furthermore, the defendant knew, at least after boarding, that the plaintiff would need special assistance to disembark in Budapest. In addition, the flight attendant confirmed before the Court that the plaintiffs had informed her about the connecting flight and asked whether it was possible to disembark first. Being aware of these facts, according to the Court of Appeal, the defendant was obliged to assist the plaintiffs in reaching the onward flight to St Petersburg – for example, by prioritising them when deboarding the flight or even by bringing them to the gate of the onward flight. If the defendant had fulfilled this duty, the plaintiffs would have reached their onward flight.
With regard to the claim for compensation, the first-instance judgment was upheld. The Court left open the question of whether a single booking had been made. It stated in the reasons for its decision that the plaintiffs had failed to prove that the first flight to Budapest was delayed and that they had missed their onward flight as a result. The evidence showed that other passengers booked on the same connection had reached the flight to St Petersburg. Consequently, the Court saw the reason for the delay in the failure to assist the plaintiffs with the deboarding. According to the EU Flight Compensation Regulation, such a violation of article 11 does not itself lead to a compensation claim within the meaning of article 7.
The Frankfurt Regional Court has strengthened the rights of persons with reduced mobility, which is not surprising in view of consumer protection. The more interesting question here might actually have been whether a single booking was made, as this has a considerable influence on the liability of airlines. Therefore, it may seem regrettable that the Court left this question open. In fact, a decision was not to be expected, as this question is a currently pending before the European Court of Justice.(3) The outcome of these proceedings remains to be seen.
For further information on this topic please contact Kathrin Vaupel at Arnecke Sibeth Dabelstein by telephone (+49 69 97 98 85 0) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). The Arnecke Sibeth Dabelstein website can be accessed at www.asd-law.com.
(1) Regional Court Frankfurt, 2-24 S 173/21.