What Are Extraordinary Circumstances?

EU Regulation 261/2004 allows air passengers to claim compensation of up to 600 Euros for flight delays or cancellations under certain circumstances. The only defence an airline has for not paying compensation is that of extraordinary circumstances.

Updated on December 13th, 2018


An extraordinary circumstance is an event which is out of the ordinary and outside of the airline’s control.

Since EU Regulation 261 was introduced in 2005 airlines have been arguing in court cases what is and isn’t an extraordinary circumstance as there is no defined list of extraordinary circumstances in regulation EU 261 04.

What Is The Legal Definition Of Extraordinary Circumstances

According to EU law on flight compensation the term ‘extraordinary circumstances’ is used to refer to situations where flight delays or flight cancellations are out of the ordinary and outside of the airline’s control.

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However, the Regulation does not actually define extraordinary circumstances and as a result there have been a number of cases in the European and English courts arguing what the term covers.

An extraordinary circumstance is an event which is out of the ordinary and outside of the airline’s control.

The European Court of Justice attempted to clarify extraordinary circumstances with the following statement in several of its judgments:

“The extraordinary event is not inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier and is beyond the actual control of that carrier on account of its nature or origin.”

This means that any event that would be considered part and parcel of running an airline, or that is outside their control, shouldn’t be an extraordinary circumstance.

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In terms of technical defects the European Court of Justice have stated that even rarely occurring technical problems are not extraordinary, and regular maintenance does not mean the airline has done all they can to avoid the problems:

“The frequency of the technical problems experienced by an air carrier is not in itself a factor from which it is possible to conclude the presence or absence of ‘extraordinary circumstances

“The fact that an air carrier has complied with the minimum rules on maintenance of an aircraft cannot in itself suffice to establish that that carrier has taken ‘all reasonable measures.”

Examples of Extraordinary Circumstances for Flight Delays

The extraordinary circumstances list changes depending on binding court decisions but typical extraordinary circumstances examples that are unlikely to be challenged in court are:

  • Sabotage or terrorism
  • Political or civil unrest
  • Hidden manufacturing defects
  • Bird Strikes
  • Air traffic control strikes
  • Extreme or ‘freak’ weather conditions affecting your flight

If your delay or cancellation was due to one of these reasons, then it is unlikely you would be eligible for compensation.

Some cancelled or delayed flights due to extraordinary circumstances, mostly relating to weather conditions are listed by the Civil Aviation Authority. You can always use a flight delay compensation solicitor to get a second opinion.

Examples of Non-extraordinary circumstances

Some of the things that have previously been argued as flight delay extraordinary circumstances, but the airlines have lost in court include:

  • Technical defects
  • Crew sickness
  • Staff shortages
  • Lightning strikes
  • Knock-on effects of bad weather

If your delay was due to one of these reasons, then it is likely you are able to claim compensation for the delay.

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What Flights Are Covered By EU 261

The flight compensation rules established by the European Commission are designed to protect passengers flying out of the EU or traveling on EU airlines.

Click Here To Claim Compensation For Your easyJet Flight Delays

Any flight leaving the EU is covered, regardless of the airline operating the flight. However, only EU airlines fall under these rules when arriving into the EU from a non-member state.

Examples Of Flights Covered By EU Reg 261

Departing FromArriving ToCan I Claim?
Airport inside EUAirport inside EUYes (Claimable for any airline)
Airport inside EUAirport outside EUYes (Claimable for any airline)
Airport outside EUAirport inside EUYes (If on an EU based airline)
Airport outside EUAirport outside EUNo

The rules apply to flights that are delayed or cancelled or if a passenger is denied boarding because of overbooking on the flight.

Flights generally need to be delayed for at least two hours before the Regulations kick in and they start with the airline needing to provide care and assistance. Then after three hours (depending on the length of the flight) there may also be compensation to pay to passengers.

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For cancelled flights the EU261 rules require the airline to pay compensation if there is less than 2 weeks’ notice of the cancellation and any replacement flight has a different arrival time than the original flight by an hour or two depending on the notice period given.

Click Here To Claim Compensation For Your TUI Flight Delays

For cases of denied boarding, the regulations require a passenger to be paid compensation and given care and assistance if waiting for an alternate flight for more than two hours (depending on the length of the flight).

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What if the airline claims the cause of the delay is due to extraordinary circumstances?

Airlines have a history of saying a delay or cancellation was caused by an extraordinary circumstance when it may not have, and compensation was due to passengers.

A widely publicised case was Huzar v Jet2 where the airline argued a technical defect was an extraordinary circumstance. In this case the airline won initially before losing at the Court of Appeal.

How to find out the real cause of your delay or cancellation

If your airline has told you the delay or cancellation was due to extraordinary circumstances, then you should always ask for further details from them.

Our advice is to get an airline employee to explain the reason for the delay at the time

Our advice is to get an airline employee to explain the reason for the delay at the time – maybe ask the employee if you can use your phone to record the reasons and the explanation or try and get the reason in writing.

Alternatively, use an online calculator to check for certain if you are entitled to compensation for the delay and remember that even if there were extraordinary circumstances, you are still entitled to care and assistance.

What Are My Rights?

If your flight is delayed or cancelled due to extraordinary circumstances, then the airline does not have to pay any compensation, but it still has to provide you with care and assistance regardless of the reason for the delay or cancellation.

EU regulation states care and assistance as including the following:

  • Food and drink in relation to the waiting time
  • Overnight accommodation and airport transfers
  • Two free emails, calls, or fax messages

Care and assistance kicks in once the delay reaches 2, 3, or 4 hours for a flight distance of up to 1,500km, between 1,500km and 3,500km, and over 3,500km respectively.

EU Regulation 261 – Care And Assistance

Flight DistanceLength of Delay
Up to 1,500kmAfter 2 hours
1,500km-3,500kmAfter 3 hours
Over 1,500km and between two EU StatesAfter 3 hours
Over 3,500km After 4 hours

What If There Are No Extraordinary Circumstances?

For delays and cancellations that aren’t caused by extraordinary circumstances, you will be entitled to claim compensation as well as the care and assistance, depending on how long the delay is or the circumstances around the flight cancellation.

Compensation amounts for flight delays range from 250 Euros to 600 Euros per passenger regardless of the cost of the ticket. The amounts vary according to the length of the delay and distance of the flight.

Table Of Fight Delay Compensation Amounts

Flight DistanceLength Of DelayCompensation Amount
Up to 1,500km3 hours or more€250
1,500km-3,500km3 hours or more€400
Over 3,500km3 hours or more & between 2 EU Member States€400
Over 3,500km3-4 hours€300
Over 3,500km4 hours €600

Cancellation compensation ranges from 125 Euros to 600 Euros and depends on how much notice you were given of the cancellation, the distance travelled, and the timing of any replacement flight.

If the airline cancels the flight more than 14 days before you are due to travel, then they do not have to pay any compensation, but you are entitled to a refund or rerouting.

The less notice you are given of the cancellation, the closer to the original arrival time the airline has to get you to your destination in order to avoid paying compensation.

The majority of the time flights are cancelled with less than 7 days’ notice.

For flights cancelled between 7 and 14 days’ notice the replacement flight times are given more flexibility as in theory there should be more warning for passengers to adjust travel plans.

Updates To Laws Related To The Extraordinary Circumstances Argument.

The actual list of extraordinary circumstances was never fully defined in EU Regulation 261/2004 and as a result, airlines have fought for many years in the courts to avoid paying out compensation on delays they have argued should be classed as extraordinary.

In almost all the leading and landmark cases the courts have found in favour of passengers – supporting the original intention behind the regulation of improving passenger rights.

However, in May 2017 the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that bird strikes, which had previously been eligible for compensation, were now classed as extraordinary circumstances. This was the first major win for airlines against passengers under EU261.

In April 2018 the ECJ ruled that wildcat strikes (where staff stage an unplanned and impromptu strike) were not extraordinary circumstances. The ruling is legally binding throughout Europe and the UK.

Airlines have lost major and binding cases on a number of points they claimed were extraordinary including:

  • Technical defects
  • Lightning strikes
  • Crew sickness
  • Staff shortages

There will no doubt continue to be battles between the airlines and consumer law firms representing passengers as long as the grey areas of EU 261 exist.

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