AIRLINE passengers will be entitled to claim for hotel and meal costs if their flights are cancelled after a Dublin woman won a European Court battle against Ryanair.
However, the airline has said it may hike its fares, following a European Court of Justice ruling against it.
Dublin woman Denise McDonagh yesterday won her court case against Ryanair over its failure to pay her costs for the week she was stranded in Portugal when an Icelandic volcano shut European air space.
Ms McDonagh's solicitor, John Hennessy, welcomed the ruling for bringing full clarity to the situation for passengers.
"When consumers are out of pocket, they sometimes get the two fingers from big institutions and can face a very daunting case, but this has now been 100pc resolved," he said.
Ms McDonagh had already been compensated by Ryanair – it had simply chosen her case as a test to challenge the regulation, not expecting it would go against them like this, Mr Hennessy said.
The court ruled that even such exceptional cases were covered by the EU 261 regulation as excluding them would deny vital protection to vulnerable customers. But Ryanair warned that airfares would increase on foot of this ruling.
The airline imposed a levy on all passengers after the volcanic ash cloud incident but said, based on the ruling, "the levy will remain and may increase".
Ms McDonagh, of Terenure, Dublin, had claimed compensation of €1,130 from Ryanair for accommodation, meals and transport for the period between April 17 and 24, 2010, when her flight from Faro, Portugal, to Dublin was cancelled.
The court ruled that when a flight was cancelled, the airline was obliged under the EU 261 regulation to provide care to passengers including meals, hotel accommodation, transport and communications.
"The air carrier is obliged to fulfil that obligation even when ... caused by extraordinary circumstances," it said.
The Dublin District Court had asked the European Court to rule on whether a volcanic eruption went beyond the definition of extraordinary circumstances, therefore exempting the airline from the need to provide care.
The court shot this down, however, saying there was no such category of "particularly extraordinary" circumstances that would be exempt, as that would deny protection to customers in a vulnerable state. "It is precisely in situations where the waiting period occasioned by the cancellation of a flight is lengthy that it is necessary an air passenger can have access to essential goods and services," the court said.
Ryanair said it regretted the court's decision, which allowed passengers to claim for flight delays that were clearly and unambiguously outside an airline's control – whereas insurance companies denied liability, claiming it was an act of God.
"(The) ruling now makes the airlines the insurer of last resort, even when in the majority of cases (such as ATC delays or national strikes in Europe) these delays are entirely beyond an airline's control. (The) decision will materially increase the cost of flying . . . as airlines will be obliged to recover the cost of these claims."
Ryanair said it had paid out €27m to customers stranded during the ash crisis, and there were no outstanding claims.
Ms McDonagh's solicitor said she had been paid her money long ago as Ryanair had simply chosen her case as a test against the EU regulation, which it opposes.