Extraordinary Circumstances, Force Majeure and Controllable Irregularities in Air Travel

By | November 28, 2023

Air travel, with its intricate web of schedules and logistics, is susceptible to a variety of disruptions. While many disruptions fall under the umbrella of terms like force majeure, extraordinary circumstances, and controllable irregularities, understanding your rights is crucial for both passengers and airlines. We’ll delve into the complexities of these concepts and how they impact the air travel experience.

  • Extraordinary Circumstances – Extraordinary circumstances are unforeseen events that could not have been avoided by which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken.. These may include air traffic control restrictions, security threats, or weather. Under regulations such as the European Commission’s EC261/2004, an airine is required to provide compensation to affected passengers unless the disruption was caused by extraordinary circumstances.
  • Force Majeure –Force majeure, literally acts of nature, encompasses events beyond the control of airlines, such as natural disasters, political unrest, or extreme weather conditions. These events are considered unforeseeable and unavoidable. When a force majeure event occurs, airlines may be exempt from certain liabilities, and passengers may not be entitled to the same level of compensation as they would for circumstances the airline considers under their control.
  • Controllable Irregularity – Controllable irregularities are a term first used by JetBlue Airways in their contract of carriage as a response to a massive service meltdown in 2007. It refers to a delay, cancellation or diversion not caused by a Force Majeure event.  Airlines typically take responsibility for controllable irregularities. The US Department of Transportation now uses the terms Controllable Delay or Controllable Cancellation, which are specific irregularities and which they define as “a delay or cancellation caused by the airline. Examples include: maintenance or crew problems; cabin cleaning; baggage loading; and fueling.”

When you look at these terms and similar ones, it can be very confusing for a traveler trying to determine their rights. If you are flying on an EU carrier, or departing an EU airport, you are subject to EC261, which requires the airline to compensate you according to the regulation’s parameters(up to 600 euro per person), unless this is due to an extraordinary circumstance. Even if it is an extraordinary circumstances, they still owe you accommodation and refreshment until they can get you home. The UK left the European Union, but it kept a version of the rule. Other countries have adopted similar rules. However, not the US or Canada, which actually has no mandatory compensation for delay or cancellation, nor requirement to provide accommodation or refreshment in the event of a delay.

In the United States, the Department of Transportation has created a Airline Customer Service Dashboard.  The DOT requires airlines to adhere to the promises that they make in their customer service plan, including commitments to care for customers in the event of controllable delays or cancellations, but they do not require the airline to make any promises outside of offering a refund.

Airlines are expected to communicate effectively with passengers during disruptions, providing timely information about the situation, available options, and potential compensation. Transparency in communication is essential for building trust and ensuring passengers are aware of their rights in different circumstances.

Travel insurance can offer an additional layer of protection for passengers facing disruptions. It’s crucial to carefully review the terms and conditions of travel insurance policies, as coverage may vary based on the cause of the disruption.

Delays and cancellations are consequences of the complex world of air travel. As passengers, understanding these concepts empowers us to navigate disruptions more effectively, while airlines must continue to prioritize clear communication, proactive measures, and adaptability in the face of an ever-changing landscape.

Author: Guru

Guru is the Editor of Flight Wisdom and a long time aviation enthusiast.