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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Airlines have to pay passengers compensation when flights are canceled or delayed due to unforeseen technical problems, the European Union's top court ruled on Thursday, handing a victory to consumers.
The case was brought by a Dutch couple whose flight from Quito, Ecuador, to Amsterdam was delayed by 29 hours. KLM (AIRF.PA) refused to pay compensation on the grounds that the technical faults that caused the delay were extraordinary circumstances.
Under EU law, air carriers do not have to pay compensation if the cancellation or delay is caused by "extraordinary circumstances" such as bad weather, strikes and political instability, which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken.
KLM argued the two defective components at the root of the delay had not exceeded their average lifetime and that the manufacturer had not provided any specific information on which defects might arise once the equipment reached a certain age.
The Luxembourg-based court said that while technical problems could constitute extraordinary circumstances, for example those caused by acts of sabotage or terrorism, the same could not be said for issues that arise during maintenance of the aircraft or from a failure to carry out such maintenance.
"In the course of the activities of an air carrier, that unexpected event is inherent in the normal exercise of an air carrier’s activity, as air carriers are confronted as a matter of course with unexpected technical problems," the Court of Justice of the European Union said in a press release. "No component of an aircraft lasts forever."
Consumer associations applauded the ruling for providing greater clarity on what constitutes an extraordinary circumstance, saying airlines often relied on unforeseen technical errors to reject compensation claims.
Ronald Schmid, spokesman for consumer association Fairplane.de and an aviation lawyer, said the judgment confirmed a previous 2008 ruling which excluded technical issues arising from aircraft maintenance as extraordinary circumstances.
However, he said Thursday's decision clarified that airlines have to be prepared to deal with technical problems wherever they are in the world.
KLM had to fly in the replacement components from Amsterdam in order to install them since they were unavailable in Quito.
The Association of European Airlines said the case proved that the current air passenger rights regulation needed to be reviewed since it was giving rise to "one court case after the other" and different interpretations.
Additional reporting by Victoria Bryan in Berlin; Editing by Mark Potter