Time of arrival: Time at which the aircraft door is opened

Regulation No. 261/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 February 2004 does not define the actual “arrival time”. That being the case, the need for a uniform application of EU law and the principle of equal treatment requires that the terms of a provision of EU law which makes no express reference to the law of the Member States for the purpose of determining its meaning and scope must normally be given an independent interpretation throughout the European Union.

To that effect, request for a preliminary ruling concerning the interpretation of the concept “arrival time” within the meaning of Articles 2, 5 and 7 of Regulation (EC) No. 261/2004, establishing common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers in the event denied boarding and of cancellation or long delay of flights and repealing Regulation (EEC) No. 295/91, was made to the Court of Justice of the European Union in the matter Germanwings GmbH v Ronny Henning.

The referring court asked whether Articles 2, 5 and 7 of Regulation No 261/2004 are to be interpreted as meaning that the concept of “arrival time”, which is used to determine the length of the delay to which passengers on a flight have been subject, refers to (a) the time at which the aircraft touches down on the runway of the destination airport; (b) the time at which the aircraft reaches its parking position and the parking brakes are engaged or the chocks have been applied; (c) the time at which the aircraft door is opened or (d) a time defined by the parties by common accord.

By judgment dated 4 September 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled that Articles 2, 5 and 7 of Regulation (EC) No. 261/2004 must be interpreted as meaning that the concept of “arrival time” which is used to determine the length of the delay to which passengers on a flight have been subject, refers to the time at which at least one of the doors of the aircraft is opened, the assumption being that, at that moment, the passengers are permitted to leave the aircraft.

The Court based this finding on the fact that during a flight, passengers remain confined in an enclosed space, under the instructions and control of the air carrier, in which, for technical and safety reasons, their possibilities of communicating with the outside are considerably restricted. The arrival time must correspond to the time at which this situation comes to an end. It is only when the doors of the aircraft are opened and passengers are permitted to leave the aircraft that passengers cease being subject to those constraints.