Flightright v Iberia concerned a three-leg journey by two passengers from Hamburg to London, then London to Madrid, and finally from Madrid to San Sebastián. The whole trip was reserved in a single booking. Iberia operated the second and the third legs and it eventually cancelled the latter. The two passengers assigned their claims for compensation to the online rights portal flightright. The latter sued Iberia at the local tribunal in Hamburg, the point of departure. The tribunal doubted its jurisdiction and asked the CJEU for a preliminary ruling.
The case turns on the second indent of Article 7(1)(b) Brussels I bis Regulation, which gives jurisdiction in matters relating to the provision of services to the tribunal of the place “where, under the contract, the services were provided or should have been provided”. The Hamburg tribunal had been unsure whether the conditions of this head of jurisdiction were fulfilled, given that Iberia was merely operating the last leg of the flight and was (1) neither the contractual partner of the passengers; nor (2) operating a flight running to or from Hamburg, the place where the suit was brought.
It is settled law, following the seminal CJEU decision in Rehder, that in the case of air transport contracts, the place of performance is deemed to be located at the points of both departure and of arrival, and that the passenger can choose between the two to bring her claim.
Multistop journeys and the liability of operating carriers were the subject of the decision in Air Nostrum, which also involved flightright, but which must not be confused with the present case. In Air Nostrum, suits were brought at the point of arrival regarding problems that had occurred on the first leg of the journey. The CJEU ruled that, although the carrier operating this leg had no direct contractual obligation with the passenger, it should be regarded as fulfilling an obligation freely consented to by performing a flight for another airline. The effect of this was that Article 7(1) Brussels I bis applied. The Court of Justice also held that a multistop journey confirmed in a single booking is to be regarded as a single service for the purposes of Article 7(1) Brussels I bis. The Court of Justice therefore concluded that the tribunal at the place of the final destination of the multistop journey had jurisdiction over the carrier operating the first leg of the flight.
In another decision, České aerolinie, a passenger had booked a combined journey with the defendant, which operated the first leg of the journey, while a non-EU carrier performed the second. The latter being significantly delayed, the passenger sued the defendant – who was not involved in the delay – at the place of departure. The CJEU ruled here that indeed the defendant could be sued there because the journey is to be considered as one service (confirming the earlier judgment in Air Nostrum) and that the place of departure is to be considered a place of performance for the whole service under Article 7(1) Brussels I bis.
The COurt’s Ruling
In flightright v Iberia, the situation was somehow the reverse of Air Nostrum: the carrier operating the last and delayed leg of a multistop flight was sued at the place of departure. Again, the Court of Justice considered that the tribunal at this place had jurisdiction over the claim under Article 7(1)(b), second indent, Brussels I bis. The CJEU considered the journey comprising three legs as one service to carry the passenger from Hamburg to San Sebastián because it was made in a single booking (para. 27 – 29). In the view of the Justices, the tribunal at the place of departure (Hamburg) has a sufficiently close connection to the dispute. Even though it related to the cancelled flight between Madrid and San Sebastián, finding this tribunal competent satisfied the objective of proximity (para. 29 – 31). This solution would also fulfil the principle of predictability, given that the applicant and the defendant both could identify the place of departure and arrival (para. 32).
The new judgment is hardly surprising. The solution reached by the CJEU fully squares with the previous rulings. Indeed, the new judgment merely continues the same logic, the main axioms of which are as follows: (1) multistop journeys are to be regarded as one service for the purposes of Article 7 Brussels I bis where they were made in a single booking; (2) a carrier operating a leg of the journey fulfils an obligation freely consented to, even though it has no direct contractual relation with the passenger; and (3) the passenger can choose to sue such carrier at the point of departure or of arrival of the whole journey.
The novel aspect of the decision is merely that a tribunal at the place of departure can be deemed competent to hear a claim for compensation relating to the final leg of the flight. Therefore, carriers operating parts of multistep journeys may find themselves sued in a court at a place to which or from which they do not fly. One can only warn them to pay particular attention to their arrangements with other airlines and to be cautious when confirming or authorising single bookings.