On 4 May 2017, the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) handed down judgment in the case of Marcela Pešková, Jirí Peška -v- Travel Service A.S. (C-315/15) (“Pešková”). The case concerned the central question of whether a bird strike to an aircraft could amount to an “extraordinary circumstance” such that the air carrier was excused from paying compensation for delay under Regulation (EC) No.261/2004 (“the Regulation”). Perhaps to the surprise of many, the Court held that bird strikes did amount to extraordinary circumstances. This article evaluates the judgment’s impact, particularly with respect to cases involving flight delays or cancellations caused by lightning strikes and other meteorological events.
The facts of Pešková
Ms Marcela Pešková and Mr Jirí Pešká encountered a long delay to their flight from Burgas (Bulgaria) to Ostrava (Czech Republic) in August 2013 with the Czech airline Travel Service. The aircraft set to complete their trip had already flown from Prague to Burgas, Burgas to Brno (Czech Republic) and from Brno to Burgas before commencing their journey. During the flight from Prague to Burgas (the first sector), it exhibited a technical failure in a valve. The valve was repaired but this led to a delay of 1 hour and 45 minutes to the flight. When the aircraft then flew from Burgas to Brno (the second sector), it collided with a bird during landing necessitating mandatory safety checks at Brno. The aircraft’s condition was checked first by a local company and then by a Travel Service technician as the owner of the aircraft, Sunwing, refused to authorise the first check.
The aircraft passed both safety checks but this resulted in a total delay of 5 hours and 20 minutes to Ms Pešková’s and Mr Pešká’s flight to Ostrava. They then brought an action against Travel Service under the Regulation in the Prague 6 District Court for CZK 6,825 (approximately €250 each).
Does a bird strike constitute an “extraordinary circumstance”?
The Czech court referred several questions to the CJEU, including whether the collision of an aircraft with a bird is an “extraordinary circumstance” within the meaning of Article 5(3) of the Regulation.
The Third Chamber held that extraordinary circumstances within the meaning of the Regulation are events which, by their nature or origin, are not inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier and are outside its actual control. At paragraph 24 of the judgment, the Court explained its reasoning thus:
‘24. In the present case, a collision between an aircraft and a bird, as well as any damage caused by that collision, since they are not intrinsically linked to the operating system of the aircraft, are not by their nature or origin inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier concerned and are outside its actual control. Accordingly, that collision must be classified as ‘extraordinary circumstances’ within the meaning of Article 5(3) of Regulation No 261/2004.’
The CJEU then went on to conclude at paragraphs 25 and 26:
‘25. In that regard, it is irrelevant whether the collision actually caused damage to the aircraft concerned. The objective of ensuring a high level of protection for air passengers pursued by Regulation No 261/2004, as specified in recital 1 thereof, means that air carriers must not be encouraged to refrain from taking the measures necessitated by such an incident by prioritising the maintaining and punctuality of their flights over the objective of safety.
‘26. Having regard to the foregoing considerations, the answer to the first question is that Article 5(3) of Regulation No 261/2004, read in the light of recital 14 of that regulation, must be interpreted as meaning that a collision between an aircraft and a bird is classified under the concept of ‘extraordinary circumstances’ within the meaning of that provision.’
The CJEU’s definition of inherency – whether an event is ‘intrinsically linked to the operating system of the aircraft’ – appears to mark a departure from its previous rulings on the definition of extraordinary circumstances. In Siewert -v- Condor Flugdienst GmbH (C 394/14), for example, the CJEU appeared to suggest that damage suffered by an aircraft causing a delay or cancellation had to be ‘caused by an act outside the category of normal airport services’.
In Pešková, the CJEU held that it was ‘irrelevant whether the collision actually caused damage to the aircraft concerned’, because it was necessary for a struck aircraft to go through mandatory safety checks after the collision to ensure it had not compromised its airworthiness.
The CJEU implicitly rejected Advocate General Bot’s opinion delivered some 10 months earlier. In his opinion, the Advocate General had held that bird strikes could be classed as inherent in the normal exercise of air carriers’ activities owing to the strikes’ nature or origin (though interestingly such a collision was beyond the actual control of an air carrier). Explaining the rationale for this view at paragraphs 28-30, Advocate General Bot wrote:
‘28. The wildlife hazard involved in air transport is a well-known phenomenon and perfectly well understood by the relevant actors. From the stage of manufacturing an aircraft, the parts of it which are the most prone to impact with a bird — that is, in particular, the engine and the windscreen of the cockpit — are subjected to tests before the aircraft is able to obtain an airworthiness certificate allowing it to fly. Thus, in order to test the resistance of an aircraft to collision with birds, aircraft manufacturers frequently use ‘chicken cannons’ which fire bird corpses at the aircraft’s flight speed at altitudes where such birds are commonly encountered, that is to say during take-off and landing. Thus, the structure of the aircraft must be able to withstand impact with birds of different sizes, according to the model of the aircraft and the model of the engine.
Advocate General Bot concluded thus:
‘33. It is therefore clear that a collision between a bird and an aircraft is in no way an event which is ‘out of the ordinary’, in fact, it is quite the opposite. The frequency of such collisions and the fact that they are taken into consideration in the design of the aircraft, in the management of airports and at the different phases of a flight sufficiently demonstrate, in my view, that such an event is very much inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of an air carrier. Any other conclusion would lead to the legal classification as ‘extraordinary’ of an event which is perfectly ordinary.
The risk is certain, known, allowed for and present from the time the aircraft takes off or lands, that is to say it is inseparable from aeronautical activity itself. It seems clear, moreover, that nobody seriously disputes that characteristic.’
The CJEU chose not to tackle Advocate General Bot’s conclusions, however, its judgment implicitly rejected all of them: bird strikes were extraordinary as they were ‘not intrinsically linked to the operating system of the aircraft, are not by their nature or origin inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier concerned and are outside its actual control’.
So far as bird strikes are concerned, the effect of Pešková is that carriers will no longer be obliged to pay passengers compensation for delays or cancellations caused by such events if they can prove that all measures were taken to prevent the strike in question occurring.
What reasonable measures must carriers take?
The CJEU said the following in respect to what reasonable measures would be required:
28. Since not all extraordinary circumstances confer exemption, the onus is on the air carrier seeking to rely on them to establish that they could not, on any view, have been avoided by measures appropriate to the situation, that is to say, by measures which, at the time those extraordinary circumstances arise, meet, inter alia, conditions which are technically and economically viable for the air carrier concerned (see judgment of 12 May 2011, Eglītis and Ratnieks, C 294/10, EU:C:2011:303, paragraph 25 and the case-law cited).
That air carrier must establish that, even if it had deployed all its resources in terms of staff or equipment and the financial means at its disposal, it would clearly not have been able, unless it had made intolerable sacrifices in the light of the capacities of its undertaking at the relevant time, to prevent the extraordinary circumstances with which it was confronted from leading to the cancellation of the flight or its delay equal to or in excess of three hours in arrival (see, to that effect, judgments of 19 November 2009, turgeon and Others, C 402/07 and C 432/07, EU:C:2009:716, paragraph 61, and of 12 May 2011, Eglītis and Ratnieks, C 294/10, EU:C:2011:303, paragraph 25).’
The Court went on to hold that ‘in order to assess whether an air carrier has actually taken the necessary preventative measures in order to reduce and even prevent the risks of any collisions with birds enabling it to be released from its obligation of compensating passengers under Article 7 of that regulation, only those measures which can actually be its responsibility must be taken into account, excluding those which are the responsibility of other parties, such as, inter alia, airport managers or the competent air traffic controllers’
Accordingly, it will be for national courts to assess whether an air carrier – particularly at ‘the technical and administrative levels’ – was ‘actually in a position to take, directly or indirectly, preventative measures likely to reduce and even prevent the risks of possible collisions with birds’.
If an air carrier is not able to reasonably take such preventative measures then it will not be required to compensate passengers under Article 7 of the Regulation. If such preventative measures ‘could actually be taken by the air carrier concerned’, it is for the national court ‘to ensure that the measures concerned did not require it to make intolerable sacrifices in the light of the capacities of its undertaking’.
The CJEU therefore took a pragmatic view of the reasonable measures test, holding that a carrier is not responsible for the failure of other entities, such as airports and air traffic controllers, to take their own measures to prevent bird strikes. However, it is unclear what preventative measures were being contemplated by the Court. As discussed by both the CJEU and the Advocate General, most preventative measures are employed by airports: sonic- or light-based bird deterrents such as pyrotechnic shots, laser torches or imitations of distress calls, the involvement of ornithologists, and/or the elimination of spaces where birds typically gather or fly. Accordingly, carriers would not be responsible for the failure of such measures. Again, this appears to mark a departure from previous CJEU judgments where the Court has referred to Article 13 – the right of carriers to seek redress from third parties in respect of compensation paid to passengers – when faced with carriers disgruntled at having to pay compensation for delays/cancellations outside their control. One can see this element of the judgment being utilised in respect of adverse weather conditions where preventative measures, de-icing for example, are not the responsibility of carriers.
To the extent to which an aircraft is fitted with a technical device(s) designed to prevent bird strikes, the failure of such a device might lead to a finding that all reasonable measures had not been taken unless the carrier could prove the device would not have prevented the particular collision concerned (because the device was not designed to prevent the kind of collision that occurred). Conversely, if an aircraft was not fitted with any preventative devices, a carrier should expect to explain in contested claims why it would amount to an “intolerable sacrifice” for such devices to be fitted to the aircraft, and its fleet more generally.
Another type of preventative measure that might have been contemplated by the CJEU would be what flight crews themselves do (or do not do). As stated by Advocate General Bot in his opinion:
‘32. Pilots themselves have an important role in the management of wildlife hazards, whether before, during or after the flight. Before the flight, pilots acquaint themselves, in particular, with any available information on whether or not birds are present at or near the airport of departure and the airport of destination by means of messages published by Government air traffic control agencies. If there is a risk, pilots may request an intervention in order to deter the birds. While taxiing, pilots must also carefully observe the runway to detect whether any birds are present and, if so, report that this is the case. Finally, a report must be submitted in the case of any bird strike.’
In Boeing’s ‘Strategies for Prevention of Bird-Strike Events’ article, it is suggested that ‘if large birds or flocks of birds are reported or observed near the runway, the flight crew should consider:
- Delaying the takeoff or landing when fuel permits. Advise the tower and wait for airport action before continuing.
- Take off or land on another runway that is free of bird activity, if available.’
Whether Boeing’s advice is realistic or a counsel of perfection, one should expect passengers to argue that carriers must prove that the flight crew on an aircraft hit by a bird strike took all reasonable measures to prevent the strike occurring, particularly if the strike occurs during take-off, landing or taxiing. Given that flight incident reports are completed by flight crews when strikes occur, it is likely courts will expect to see disclosure of such reports to ensure all reasonable measures were in fact taken.
It is important to also remember that carriers must show what reasonable measures were taken, or why certain measures were technically and/or economically unviable for the carrier to take, to avoid the delay of three hours or more / cancellation caused by the bird strike. For example, in circumstances where a claimant’s flight is not the flight during which the bird strike occurs, it is always necessary to explain why another aircraft could not provide the claimant’s flight instead of the struck aircraft.
In Pešková, the CJEU ruled that the checks carried out on the aircraft by the local, authorised technician at Brno Airport amounted to the carrier taking all reasonable measures to prevent the delay of the claimants’ flight. It held that the second check to the aircraft was unnecessary, which meant it could not be counted as part of the time resulting from the extraordinary circumstance.
The CJEU made the important point that, when a flight delay is caused not only by a collision with a bird, but also by other circumstances which are not extraordinary, such as a technical failure, the duration of the delay caused by the extraordinary circumstance will be deducted from the total length of the delay in the arrival of the flight. This means that whether a carrier is required to pay its passengers compensation will depend upon whether the portion of the delay for which the carrier is responsible is itself three hours or more. In the claimants’ case, the delay caused by the technical fault was 1 hour and 45 minutes, whilst the bird strike had led to a delay of 3 hours and 35 minutes.
The ruling in Pešková is a welcome one for an airline industry which has seen an ever-diminishing pool of events that constitute extraordinary circumstances. The CJEU was keen to stress that whilst consumer protection was paramount, ‘carriers must not be encouraged to refrain from taking the measures necessitated by such an incident by prioritising the maintaining and punctuality of their flights over the objective of safety’ (para.25). Whether the ruling will imbue courts in England & Wales with a renewed focus on this inherent trade-off remains to be seen. The extent to which the ruling might affect cases concerning lightning strikes and other meteorological events is discussed below.
.Can Pešková apply to lightning strike cases?
In two separate judgments of the County Court last year, two Circuit Judges held that lightning strikes could not constitute extraordinary circumstances within the meaning of Article 5(3) of the Regulation: HHJ Melissa Clarke in Monarch Airlines v Evans and Lee (County Court at Luton, 14/01/16), and HHJ Harris QC in Tsang v Ryanair (County Court at Oxford, 4/11/16, unreported). I have written previously about the flaws in the Monarch Airlines v Evans and Lee judgment, however prior to the CJEU’s judgment in Pešková I considered the Tsang v Ryanair judgment to be difficult to escape without clear evidence to address and contradict the following conclusions found in paragraph 32 of the judgment:
- Lightning is a well-known risk to flight in a metal aircraft, which are not infrequently struck and for this reason are invariably designed in order to survive such events. The risk is inherent in normal airline activity.
- It is the business of airlines to operate in a medium where electrical storms may be, and are, encountered.
- Lightning strikes are an entirely foreseeable hazard of flight and are not “freak” occurrences such as the eruption of an Icelandic volcano.
Should a lightning strike to an aircraft necessitate a mandatory safety check before its next flight, it is considered that such a strike is analogous, if not identical, to a bird strike. Given the CJEU’s conclusion that a bird strike is not inherent in the normal exercise of an air carrier’s activity as it is ‘not intrinsically linked to the operating system of the aircraft’, it is difficult to see how the same conclusion cannot be applied in respect of lightning strikes. Whilst aircraft are designed to withstand lightning strikes, the same is true of bird strikes as explained by Advocate General Bot in his opinion. I therefore consider that the judgment in Pešková is capable of being used by carriers to argue that lightning strikes are, prima facie, extraordinary circumstances.
As with bird strikes, I can foresee passengers seeking to argue that carriers must prove that the flight crew on the aircraft struck by lightning took all reasonable measures to prevent the strike occurring. Such measures would particularly concern weather forecasting and appropriate route planning.
The Pešková judgment should also assist causation arguments that extraordinary circumstances do not have to occur to the flight the claimant passenger(s) is on or due to be. This author has already had several successes in using the judgment to dispel the contention that reference in Recital 14 of the Regulation to ‘meteorological conditions incompatible with the operation of the flight concerned’ means the flight the claimant passenger(s) is on or due to be. In Pešková the CJEU held that a bird strike that had occurred on a flight three sectors before the claimants’ flight was an extraordinary circumstance. It is important to remember that it is vital to explain in witness evidence why only the aircraft affected was the one that could be utilised to provide the flight claimant passengers were due to be carried on.
Even with the benefit of the Pešková judgment, it is advisable for carriers to provide evidence in contested claims of (a) the frequency of lightning strikes (particularly those necessitating emergency landings or checks to aircraft leading to delays of over 3 hours or cancellations), and (b) meteorological information for the route, date and time for the particular flight concerned. As with bird strikes, given that flight incident reports are completed by flight crews when lightning strikes occur, it is likely courts will expect to see disclosure of such reports to ensure all reasonable measures were in fact taken.
 Available here: http://publications.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/7181b23b-30ad-11e7-9412-01aa75ed71a1/language-en/format-HTML/source-search
 At paragraph 19 of its judgment.
 Paragraph 25.
 Available here: http://publications.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/10488b70-54cc-11e6-89bd-01aa75ed71a1/language-en/format-HTML/source-search
 At paragraphs 33 and 34.
 Paragraph 24.
 At paragraphs 28 to 29.
 Paragraph 43.
 Paragraph 44.
 Paragraph 45.
 At paragraph 32.
 Exhibited to, and discussed in, a witness statement.
16] Exhibited to, and discussed in, a witness statement.