June 14, 2001 -- In all mock sincerity and with a contempt so poorly concealed that they could barely suppress their snarky laughter, the chief executives of most of the nation's largest airlines convened in Washington last Thursday and invited unhappy passengers to sue them whenever things go wrong.
I'm gonna tell you how to do just that--at minimum cost to you and with maximum inconvenience to the airlines. First, however, let me ask the airline pooh-bahs, in all mock sincerity, one simple question: Is it possible that all your problems with customer service stem from the fact that you guys apparently don't know the alphabet?
You'll see why I ask that question if you screen C-SPAN's 40-minute coverage of the Capitol Hill event. Skip past the part where our Congressional watchdogs make fawning fools of themselves by absolving the airlines of blame for everything from flight delays to the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. But watch when Carol Hallett, überminister of the airline propaganda machine, announces she will introduce the attending airline chieftains in alphabetical order. She gets the "A" bosses right--first Alaska's Kelly, then Aloha's Zander, America West's Franke and American's Carty--but then inexplicably presents Delta's Mullin before Continental's Bethune.
So maybe it's a language and comprehension thing with the airlines. If they can't get from "A" to "D" without screwing up, why should we assume they can run an air-transportation system?
Anyway, Hallett and the executive flyboys parachuted into Washington to announce that their hopelessly vague and relentlessly meaningless "Customer First" initiatives (http://www.customers-first.org) were now a legally binding part of their draconian "contract of carriage." It was then that Hallett, president of the Air Transport Association, invited legal action. In the world according to the airlines, Hallett explained, unhappy passengers "would, of course, go to court."
What Hallett neglected to mention was that the airlines immediately challenge your right to sue whenever you file suit in the most logical venue, your state or local court. Citing an imprecisely worded clause in the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the airlines routinely claim a plaintiff's only legal avenue is the federal courts.
"They always use that defense," says Barry Roberts, a travel-industry lawyer.
In fact, airlines sometimes tie up irate passengers for years while they contest the jurisdictional issue. Eventually, they win by default, exhausting a traveler's time, patience and funds without ever having to defend against the substance of the allegations.
Lately, however, the federal-court-or-nothing defense has sprung a few leaks. Last year, for instance, one unhappy frequent flyer trounced Delta on a ticketing matter and won an injunction against Delta's attempt to confiscate his frequent-flyer miles. The venue? A county court in Cincinnati. Still, pursuing legal action against an airline in a state or local court is risky, it takes forever and it requires a ton of funding and legal expertise.
There's a better way to sue an airline: Drag them into your local small-claims court. For you, it's fast, it's cheap and you don't need a lawyer. For the airlines, however, it is time-consuming and expensive, since they are usually required to dispatch legal talent to your local small-claims court. If you do it right, then you've got a great chance of receiving substantial financial restitution (up to $10,000 in some states) with very little financial risks (legal fees are usually less than $100).
Small-claims courts, explains Judge Thomas A. Dickerson, are "very effective, very good forums for consumers. Airlines must appear" and there is no question of jurisdiction.
Dickerson should know. He literally wrote the book on travel law. His text, Travel Law, is frequently cited and his legal insights on travel (http://www.classactionlitigation.com/articles_of_interest.htm) are highly regarded.
The increase in the number of disgruntled travelers taking airlines into small-claims court has even led the Department of Transportation to create a publication called Air Travelers: Tell It to The Judge (http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/publications/telljudge.htm). It's a useful primer on how passengers can use small-claims courts to bring outlaw airlines to justice.
Durant Imboden took Northwest to small-claims court in Minneapolis several years ago and beat the airline for $3,000 in travel vouchers. Imboden, who manages the Europe for Visitors site at About.com, eventually posted the story of his small-claims victory on the site. Imboden's tale of woe is required reading for anyone considering filing a small-claims suit against an airline.
"It was easier to sue them in small-claims court than deal with their customer-service department," Imboden told me recently. "At least I got a resolution and some action. I was getting no satisfaction whatever from the traditional channels."
Bob Bruss, the nationally known real-estate expert, has also beaten an airline in small-claims court. In fact, he's beaten one carrier, United Airlines, at least five times.
"I've only lost once and it was my own fault," Bruss explains. "I didn't have all my paperwork in order. But I've won all the other times because I had the proof and they clearly were in breach of contract."
Bruss, who's based in the San Francisco area and holds United Mileage Plus Premier Executive status, last month won a small-claims judgment against United in the amount of $1,092.50. That was reimbursement for $26 of court costs and the $1,066.50 he paid to upgrade to first class after United refused to honor his original first-class ticket, which had been reserved months previously using an upgrade award.
After his string of victories, Bruss, who has a law degree but does not practice, has worked up some tips for other frequent travelers who may be considering a small-claims suit.
"Use small-claims court only as a last resort, only after you've exhausted your options with an airline's customer-service department," Bruss suggests. "But keep copies of all of your correspondence. That shows you've made a good-faith effort to solve the problem. And, when you write a complaint letter, write it knowing that it may become evidence in a small-claims action."
Don't expect to make a long, impassioned case in front of the small-claims judge, he adds. "You get maybe five minutes to make your case, that's why the paper trail is so important."
Lastly, Bruss suggests, "bring the right types of cases to small-claims court. Suits claiming fraud and negligence don't work well. The cases that are easiest to prove are when the airline has physically damaged you or your possessions."This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.