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Recently the ATC personnel in France has been on strike. I was supposed to fly from Lisbon to Zurich, with the last flight of the day (Zurich airport closes at midnight or so).

Due to the accumulated delays during the day, due to the strike, our aircraft arrived late and we never got the permission to start, so the flight was cancelled after we had already boarded. They rebooked me on the same flight the next day, where exactly the same thing happened again. (After that they booked me on the first flight in the morning the next day which was only shortly delayed).

My question is: How directly must an airline be affected by a strike to be ineligible to pay the compensation according to EU Flight Compensation Regulation 261/2004?

It does not sound like an unplannable thing to me, especially since it happened two days in a row (there were some there who claimed this was the fourth time their flight was cancelled, in a row). The strike was even announced more than 14 days in advance (see first link). Also, the airline servicing the flight is not the one whose personnel is actually on strike.

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    There was a ruling that stated that bad weather elsewhere (i.e. not at the departing airport) which caused a delay as a knock-on effect was not a good reason to deny compensation, even if it affected the aircraft and/or crew that was scheduled to operate your flight. However I don't think an ATC strike would benefit from the same treatment, especially if it involves a large country through which many/most of the flights operated by the airline have to go through (as opposed to an ATC strike involving a single destination in the airline's network)... – jcaron Jul 2 '18 at 16:34
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Accumulated delays are not particularly mentioned in the regulation text.

It is not uncommon that airlines deny compensation in situations like yours, where your flight was delayed because the aircraft was not ready in time because of a previous delay, which was rightfully exempt from compensation. Where such cases are brought to court, the courts do however usually rule in favour of the passenger. The rationale is that it is possible for an airline to keep spare aircrafts and crew on standby to mitigate such delays and therefore the delay can be avoided.

My guess is that the airline will refuse your claim, but that you have good chances if you proceed with your claim to whatever official administration is responsible for handling such disputes. You must decide if it is worth the effort.

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There are many intermediaries that will pursue a claim under the EU directive on your behalf: it's free for you if they can't obtain any compensation, and otherwise they take a percentage of the compensation. See discussion on Wikipedia.

If you are not sure if you are eligible for compensation, you can always try filing your claim with such a service. It takes comparatively little effort and they can pursue the matter surprisingly far (including suing the airline) if they believe that compensation is due, with no additional effort on your side.

For that reason, in unclear cases I'd advise filing for compensation with one such service and let them figure it out.

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