Angry Swedish passengers are taking embattled Norwegian Air to court in a string of looming legal claims over their rights to compensation for delays and cancellations. Norwegian has consistently blamed the travel disruptions hitting its new intercontinental routes on problems with its new Boeing 787 Dreamliner jets, but a Swedish attorney specializing in aviation issues believes Norwegian must assume responsibility as well.
“No airline we’ve had anything to do with has treated its passengers so badly as Norwegian,” attorney Stephan Eriksson of the Swedish law firm Liman & Partners told newspaper Aftenposten over the weekend. “We actually have had better experience with the much-criticized Ryanair.”
Aftenposten reported that Eriksson will launch the first of 10 “cases in principle” in a Stockholm city court next month. The cases involve various passengers’ experiences on the long-haul routes Norwegian launched last year using Boeing’s brand-new Dreamliner aircraft. The routes were first hit by delayed delivery of the new Dreamliner jets and since have been plagued by myriad ongoing technical and mechanical problems with the Dreamliners that have left them unable to fly. Passengers have been stranded for many hours and even many days in far-off airports, or been severely delayed in travel from home.
Stories of Dreamliner trips that turned into nightmares have become common, with a Norwegian flight from Los Angeles to London delayed by more than 24 hours as late as Friday. Once again, Norwegian blamed the delays on “technical trouble” with the Boeing Dreamliner. A flight from Florida to Oslo was delayed by a record 44 hours hours in late June and passengers in Stockholm faced more than a full day’s delay a week ago when a Dreamliner bound for Los Angeles was grounded by “technical problems.” Many Norwegians, lured by the airline’s low fares, have faced ruined holidays, not least last Christmas and New Year, and the airline attracted a record number of complaints earlier this year.
Since Norwegian isn’t a member of a major airline alliance, it can’t turn to other airline partners to help get its passengers to their destinations. Norwegian, which launched its ambitious new long-haul routes to Asia and North America with little if any back-up plans, has hired in older replacement aircraft in some cases of severe Dreamliner problems, but that also results in hours of delays or cancellations when replacement aircraft hasn’t been available.
Eriksson estimates that as many as 35,000 passengers have been affected by Norwegian’s failure to run flights as scheduled. Under EU rules, passengers qualify for compensation of as much as EUR 600 (around NOK 5,000) if delays last longer than three hours or flights are cancelled. Norwegian has mostly refused to pay such compensation, and won support for its refusals from an airline complaints board in Norway, claiming that the delays were the result of “extraordinary circumstances,” beyond the airline’s control. That’s what Eriksson intends to challenge in court on behalf of the thousands of passengers hit by severe delays and cancellations that suggest the “extraordinary” has now become ordinary.
“The problems have arisen because Norwegian gambled on launching long-distance service, which they had no experience with, and they set up a brutally tough flight schedule with a completely new type of aircraft that they clearly had not tested enough,” Eriksson told Aftenposten. “When the delays arise, they shove all blame over on Boeing and refuse to grant passengers the rights they can demand. This is really bad, and must be hurting Norwegian’s reputation.”
Eriksson referred to a court verdict against Italian airline Alitalia in 2008 that put strict limits on what kind of reasons airlines can use refuse to pay compensation. The 10 “cases in principle” that Eriksson will prosecute were chosen to reflect various problems, to test the limits of Norwegian’s position.
Norwegian executives led by their once-high-flying chief Bjørn Kjos continue to claim that they’re not obligated to pay compensation to passengers. “The technical problems we have experienced on the new long-distance aircraft have been beyond our control,” information chief Charlotte Holmbergh Jacobsson told Aftenposten. “Therefore we are not obligated to pay compensation under EU rules.” Jacobsson further said that Boeing is responsible for the maintenance of all of Norwegian’s Dreamliners, which already have hit Norwegian’s profits.
“It’s not correct that we have denied all compensation claims,” Jacobsson added. “We have paid out money to some of the passengers who have been affected and where we have seen that the problems have been tied to what we view as our responsibility.” The airline complaints board in Norway, meanwhile, turned down the vast majority of compensation claims from angry Norwegian passengers earlier this year on the basis that their delays were “unexpected and sudden,” and suggested that passengers on a low-fare carrier must accept that they “get what they pay for.”
Norwegian officials otherwise wouldn’t comment on the upcoming series of lawsuits.The first is due to get underway in the court known as Attunda Tingsrätt in Stockholm on August 29.