In Fine Print, Airlines Make It Harder to Fight for Passenger Rights

From today’s New York Times:

As air travel reopens and flight bookings begin to creep up, AvGeeks — aviation geeks — and others may notice some new legalese in the fine print when they buy plane tickets. More and more carriers are adding clauses that require passengers to settle disputes with the airline in private arbitration, rather than in court, and bar passengers from starting or joining class-action lawsuits.

In early April, American Airlines updated its contract of carriage, a standard industry document that outlines the legal responsibilities of a ticket holder and an airline, with a class-action waiver. British Airways followed in late May, adding a class-action waiver and binding arbitration agreement in the terms and conditions of Executive Club, its loyalty program, for residents of the United States and Canada. British Airways notified members by email.

“What the airline is saying is: If you ever have a dispute with us, the only way you can pursue this is in private,” said Deborah Hensler, Ph.D., a professor of law at Stanford Law School. “These types of agreements are usually an effort to prevent people from having an effective way of challenging a company on what might arguably be a legal violation.”

The timing hardly seems coincidental. Airlines of all sizes are being sued for withholding billions of dollars from passengers whose flights were canceled because of Covid-19. American Airlines was named in a class-action lawsuit in April; a similar one was filed against British Airways in early May. Also in April, separate but similar class actions were filed against the low-cost carriers Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines, both of which had “No Class Action” clauses in their contracts of carriage before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic.

These lawsuits have more than 100 class members and seek more than $5 million in combined claims. All claim that the airlines are either breaching their own contracts of carriage — which usually codifies a passenger’s right to a cash refund when a flight is canceled — or sidestepping a Department of Transportation policy that requires airlines to give refunds when flights to, from or within the United States are canceled. Or both.

In a statement, a spokesman for American Airlines said the new class-action waiver is meant to “ensure that customers have an avenue to pursue and resolve disputes with us, including by filing an individual lawsuit. We remain committed to resolving issues customer-by-customer when they arise.”

Read the complete article here.

Airlines issued billions in vouchers but can consumers get cash refunds

From today’s MarketWatch Online:

While airlines are providing refunds when they cancel flights, very few carriers are doing so when a customer proactively chooses to cancel a trip because of the coronavirus outbreak, a new report from a group of Democratic lawmakers charges.

U.S. Senators Edward Markey, Elizabeth Warren, Richard Blumenthal and Kamala Harris released the findings of an investigation into airline procedures in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Air travel has all but come to a halt as the number of COVID-19 cases around the world has continued to grow. Passenger volume is down some 97%, according to industry trade group Airlines for America, reaching levels not seen since the 1950s. The average flight today is only transporting 10 passengers, down from around 100 before the coronavirus crisis, the group notes.

As the coronavirus crisis worsened, airlines quickly began adopting relaxed policies allowing passengers to receive travel vouchers and to rebook trips without incurring fees if they wanted to change their travel plans. But airlines have been stingier when it comes to providing full refunds.

In total, U.S. carriers are sitting on more than $10 billion in customer cash in the form of vouchers, based on the lawmakers’ calculations. While most airlines refused to confirm the value of the vouchers they had extended, the senators used data provided by JetBlue to reach that amount.

“If these companies released that money back to the public, it would provide a significant stimulus for struggling families,” the senators said in a joint statement. “That’s why we once again urge the airlines to end their anti-consumer policies and offer real refunds during this emergency.”

The Democratic lawmakers sent inquiries to 11 airlines. JetBlue said in its response to the senators’ inquiry that it issued more than $20 million per day in vouchers to consumers in the first few weeks of March. The senators reached the $10 billion figure based on JetBlue’s domestic market share, assuming that the trend was even across the month of March and across the industry.

Read the complete article here.

Senate approves measure assuring airline passengers of consumer rights

From today’s ABC News Online:

The Senate passed a measure Wednesday that would give airline passengers new rights and should help make an often frustrating experience easier.

But the bill, which authorizes funding for the Federal Aviation Administration for the next five years, doesn’t tackle those pesky airline baggage fees — a big win for the airlines.

No bumping passengers who have already boarded

This is a direct result of the April 2017 incident when United Airlines passenger David Dao was bloodied and dragged off an aircraft after refusing to give up his seat on an overbooked flight. Shortly after the highly-publicized incident, domestic carriers put an end to the practice of asking already-seated passengers to give up their seats. This bill would make that policy change federal law.

No mid-flight cell phone calls

Just because the flight has Wi-Fi, doesn’t mean passengers are allowed to make that business call. The bill would order the Department of Transportation to prohibit customers from making voice calls between takeoff and landing.

Accommodations for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers

Gate agents have long allowed pregnant women to board early along with families with small children, but this bill orders DOT to make that the law. In addition, it requires large and medium-sized airports to provide clean, accessible private rooms for nursing mothers. Changing tables will also have to be in both men’s and women’s bathrooms. The Department of Transportation will provide grants to help airport make the changes.

Orders seat size minimums

The measure, which now goes to the president for his signature, orders the FAA to establish minimum seat standards in pitch (the distance between rows of seats) and width within of year of the president’s signature. Consumer advocates have long argued that shrinking seats create a safety issue, but the FAA presented evidence that evacuating passengers end up waiting in the aisle anyway and current seat sizes have no effect on whether a plane can be emptied in 90 seconds as regulations require.

Read the complete article here.