What is an extraordinary circumstance?

Airlines refer to the term “extraordinary circumstance” quite often. This term means that the airline does not have to pay compensation to passengers for flight delays and cancellations.

But what is an extraordinary circumstance and in what cases does it apply?

In this article we will help you learn more about extraordinary circumstances, and what it means for your air passengers rights.

EU261, the regulation that protects you as an air passenger

The EU regulation (EC) No. 261/2004 aims to ensure a high level of protection for air passengers, who’ve suffered a flight delay, cancellation, or been denied boarding due to overbooking.

The regulation places responsibility with the airlines in situations where passengers suffer from irregularities in their planned flight.

EU261 provides that travelers are entitled to compensation in the following scenarios:

  • A delay of over 3 hours
  • A canceled flight
  • An overbooked flight where a passenger is denied boarding

However, there are exceptions that limit the liability of air carriers in certain cases. If the airline can prove that the delay or cancellation was due to extraordinary circumstances, they are not legally obliged to pay financial compensation for the inconvenience.

Extraordinary circumstance

“Extraordinary circumstance” is a legal term that has been assessed and defined by courts across the EU.

Passengers can only claim under the law if the delay or cancellation was within the airline’s control.

As the word “extraordinary” indicates, these circumstances are unexpected.

When a delay or cancellation is due to an extraordinary circumstance, the reason for the interruption is beyond the power and control of the airline. The airline could not have predicted or prevented the delay or cancellation even when all reasonable measures were taken.

The regulation gives this explanation:

“Extraordinary circumstances should be deemed to exist where the impact of an air traffic management decision in relation to a particular aircraft on a particular day gives rise to a long delay, an overnight delay, or the cancellation of one or more flights by that aircraft, even though all reasonable measures had been taken by the air carrier concerned to avoid the delays or cancellations.” (EC 261/2004).

When does an extraordinary circumstance apply?

Passengers only have the right to claim compensation if the delay or cancellation was within the control of the airline.

Here are some examples of circumstances that can be considered extraordinary;
  • Bad weather: Storms, thunderstorms, heavy rain, even thick clouds can disrupt air traffic. In the event of bad weather, several flights departing from the same airport are often affected.
  • Strike: a third party strike is considered an extraordinary circumstance. Nevertheless, a strike of the airline’s crew is not considered an extraordinary circumstance!
  • Medical emergency: If a passenger becomes ill during a flight and the flight has to make an emergency landing at the nearest airport, you are not entitled to compensation for the delay.
  • Terrorism or political instability: In the event of a terrorist attack or political instability, we are also talking about an extraordinary circumstance.
  • Bird Strike: The term “Bird Strike” refers to damage to the aircraft caused by a collision with a bird. A bird strike is usually considered an extraordinary circumstance and therefore removes your right to claim compensation in the event of delay.
  • Manufacturing defects: Unexpected technical errors are a valid extraordinary circumstance.

Cases that are not considered unusual

An extraordinary circumstance is often confused with a circumstance that is not the “fault” of the aircraft. A technical error can occur spontaneously. For example, a flat tire. The airline is responsible for the maintenance of the aircraft.

Many technical errors can be prevented that way. Technical errors that cause delays of more than three hours are not considered extraordinary. In these cases you can claim compensation.

Below we give you some examples of situations in which the airline cannot lay off the blame and simply report an extraordinary circumstance;
  • Technical errors
  • Internal operational problems
  • Bad weather on a previous flight or route, which in turn affects the flight in question (so-called knock-on effect)
  • Problems with and lack of crew (rest periods, illness)
  • Collision with a third party vehicle on the runway

The airline must be able to document

You must be aware, that it is not enough for the airline to say, they have done, what they have to do, or that the delay is due to an extraordinary circumstance. The airline has to prove it. Otherwise you may be entitled to compensation.

It can benefit you to think in an unconventional way, when you have to determine, whether the airline’s rejection is correct.

For intance, if an airline explains, that they could not take off due to weather conditions, you can advantageously check whether other planes could land or take off from the airport in the same period.

You must maintain your claim for compensation, if you do not believe that the delay was due to an extraordinary circumstance.

You must also be aware that even if the airline has proven, that the delay or cancellation is due to extraordinary circumstances, they are obliged to limit your delay as much as possible, in order to avoid paying you compensation.


If your delay was caused by one of the following, you may be entitled to compensation according to EU261.

  • Issues with airline staff e.g. crew turning up late or understaffing
  • Bad weather affecting a previous flight, causing your flight to be delayed
  • Denied boarding due to the flight being overbooked
  • Technical problems with the aircraft (except hidden manufacturing defects or problems caused by sabotage)

It will generally not qualify as an extraordinary circumstance, in case of an technical fault. It is the airline’s own responsibility to maintain their aircraft properly.

If the plane hits a bird during take-off or landing, it is an extraordinary circumstance because the airline could not have done anything to avoid it.

If Air Traffic Control (ATC) places restrictions on how many aircraft may land or take off from the airport at a particular time, it is beyond the control of the airline and thus it is an extraordinary circumstance.

Was your flight delayed or canceled?

Have you ever experienced a delayed or cancelled flight? You may be entitled to as much as €600 in flight compensation. To know if your flight qualifies for compensation under the EU261 Regulation try our free Compensation Check .

Read more about how Cancelled & Delayed Flight Compensation Works.

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