Last weekend, after the phreatic eruption of Taal Volcano caused ashfall as far as the country’s capital causing NAIA to suspend operations, there were so many posts on social media on the chaos caused by the flight cancellations.
What exactly are the duties and responsibilities of airline companies when flights are canceled?
First and foremost, it depends on the cause of the cancellation. If the cancellation is due to the fault of the airlines, then it will be obligated to provide sufficient refreshments, hotel accommodation, transportation from airport to the hotel, among others.
For example, I once had a flight from Davao City to Cebu with a connecting flight to Tacloban City on the same airline. However, a delay in the flight from Davao to Cebu caused me to miss the flight to Tacloban. When I informed the airline in Cebu that I have to be in Tacloban early in the morning of the following day because of a court hearing, I was flown to Manila, billeted at the Heritage Hotel and flown to Tacloban on the earliest flight the following day, all at the expense of the airline.
However, if the cause is a fortuitous event, an Act of God, like an earthquake, a severe storm or a volcano eruption, the general rule is that if it is the sole cause of the cancellation, the obligations of the airline will be very limited.
For example, in the case of Japan Airlines vs. Court of Appeals (August 7, 1998), the Supreme Court held that when JAL was prevented from resuming its flight to Manila due to the effects of Mt. Pinatubo eruption, whatever losses or damages in the form of hotel and meal expenses the stranded passengers incurred, cannot be charged to JAL. Although in the same case, it was also emphasized that JAL had the duty to make the necessary arrangements to transport the passengers on the first available connecting flight to Manila.
This limited liability is not absolute. Like I said, it is only applicable if the natural calamity or fortuitous event is the SOLE cause of the delay or cancellation of the flight. If it coincides with, or is aggravated by, some kind of fault on the part of the airline, particularly if the airline is found to be in bad faith, then the airline will be fully liable for damages.
The case of Singapore Airlines Ltd vs. Fernandez (December 10, 2003) is a good example. In this case, the passenger had a ticket from Germany to Singapore with a connecting flight to Manila. However, the flight from Germany left two hours delayed due to inclement weather. The passenger informed the airline counter in Germany that she had to be in Manila as scheduled because she would then be leaving for Malaysia and she was assured that the airlines would be responsible for getting her to Manila on time. This, however, did not happen even if she could have been allowed to take the flight to Hong Kong and then to Manila on the same airline. Sadly, she was treated rudely by the personnel in Singapore who demanded that she should pay for the ticket if she wanted to take the Hong Kong route and she was not even afforded accommodations, so she had to stay overnight with a relative in Singapore to take the flight to Manila the next day.
In that case, the Supreme Court found the airline to have been in bad faith and in breach of its contract of carriage with the passenger and held it liable for damages.
By the way, in many cases decided by the Supreme Court, overbooking by an airline, or when the confirmed passengers are more than the available seats on the plane, is considered to be an act of bad faith. So, whenever you are in an airport and you hear announcements from airline companies offering free tickets to passengers willing to wait for the next flight, they are actually trying to avoid a costly lawsuit because of overbooking.
So, there you have it. The bottom line is that while natural calamities are fortuitous events that allow airlines to cancel or delay flights without additional liability, airlines will still be liable for damages if the calamity is accompanied, or aggravated, by negligence or bad faith on the part of the airline.