BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Airlines might not have to pay compensation for flight delays if an aircraft is held up as a result of a bird strike, Europe's top court said on Thursday, calling such an event an "extraordinary circumstance".
The case was brought to the European Court of Justice after a complaint by Czech passengers who argued they should have been paid compensation under EU rules when their plane was more than five hours late because of a bird strike.
"A collision between an aircraft and a bird is an extraordinary circumstance within the meaning of the regulation," the court said.
Airlines for Europe (A4E), representing carriers accounting for more than 70 percent of European passenger traffic, welcomed the ruling, saying bird strikes were beyond airlines' control, much as weather conditions or ash clouds are.
A4E managing director Thomas Reynaert also called on the EU council to review EU air passenger rights legislation to make the rules clearer and to clarify the definition of extraordinary circumstances.
Under EU law passengers are entitled to compensation if their flights are delayed by three hours or more, but not if the carrier can prove that the delay was caused by extraordinary circumstances.
Revision of the relevant regulation is currently being held up by a dispute between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar's airport.
The court noted in the Czech case on Thursday, however, that the overall delay was extended because the airline insisted that a second check be carried out by an inspector, calling this check unnecessary.
If a delay is the sum of such an extraordinary event and another delay, such as a technical problem, it must be deducted from the total delay to assess whether compensation is due, the court added.
One famous bird strike incident was in 2009, when Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger managed to safely land his U.S. Airways airliner in the Hudson River after the plane struck a flock of Canada geese shortly after take-off from New York's LaGuardia Airport.
Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; Additional reporting by Victoria Bryan; Editing by Philip Blenkinsop, Greg Mahlich