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Taking an Airline to Small Claims Court

SmarterTravel

Airlines sometimes act as if they were above the law—as if the basic principles of contract law didn’t apply to them—especially when consumers ask for cash refunds. Here’s a case in point:

“I had booked a flight on [[Allegiant_Air | Allegiant Air]] for October 2008 from Fort Lauderdale, FL to Chattanooga. About three weeks after I booked the flight, Allegiant notified me it was canceling service from Fort Lauderdale and I would have to fly from Orlando.

Orlando was not an attractive option: It is a three-hour drive from my home and I would also have the added expense of airport parking fees for four days. Then, after another two weeks, I was notified that the departure time for my return flight had been moved two hours earlier, which would make me miss my appointment in Chattanooga. Of necessity, I booked a replacement itinerary with a different airline. But Allegiant Air refuses to return the price of my original ticket. What recourse do I have against Allegiant to get my money back?”

The short answer: Presuming you’ve already exhausted the usual channels of appeal directly with Allegiant, your best approach is probably to file a claim in small claims court. From a contract standpoint, your claim should be a “no brainer,” and just filing a claim might well shake the airline into action. Here’s a bit more about the process.

‘Tell it to the Judge’

The Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the Department of Transportation (DOT) posts a useful guide for travelers who are unable to obtain satisfaction through an airline’s consumer office: “Tell it to the Judge, A consumer’s guide to small claims courts.” This is the best single source of information I know, and it explains the process in some detail.

Points to Remember

Here are a few other important points to keep in mind about small claims court actions against airlines—or any other type of travel supplier:

1. Always try to resolve a complaint directly with an airline before you consider a lawsuit. This is not only the fair thing to do for all parties, but it’s also likely to be less expensive and less stressful.

2. Depending on circumstances, also try to get a chargeback through your credit card before filing suit. A credit card chargeback generally does not work in the case of disappointment or misrepresentation, but it does work if you paid for something but never received it at all.

3. Small claims actions are most likely to succeed when you can show a monetary loss rather than inconvenience or disappointment. You generally can’t sue an airline in any court for consequent damages, such as “because my flight was late I missed out on a million-dollar contract,” but you can sue if a cancelation caused you to lose a day of vacation or resort prepayments for that day. And airlines are generally immune to any liability for delays or cancelations due to weather.

4. You must sue in a jurisdiction—state, county, or city—where an airline has some sort of presence. With airlines, this generally means an airport the airline serves.

5. Courts have apparently held that an online transaction takes place at the place where your computer is located, home or office. That means an airline cannot require that you file a claim only in its own home office jurisdiction.

6. Although you aren’t supposed to have your own attorney appear in small claims court, you might still want to discuss your claim with a lawyer before filing. And be sure to keep your attorney informed if the airline threatens to escalate your case to a regular court.

7. Often just filing a claim will motivate a supplier into settling a claim it previous ignored. However, you might have to wait until just before the hearing, “on the courthouse steps,” before you get a settlement.

Collecting

Even if you have a good case and win a judgment, a small claims court does not help you collect. However, if you win a claim and the airline refuses to pay, you can ask the court clerk for information as to your collection options. Also, check here for one of the better online sources of detailed information on collecting small claims judgments.

Collecting is sometimes hard enough even against a supplier that has a legal presence in your home area, and collecting can be extremely difficult if the supplier’s nearest office or representative is hundreds or thousands of miles distant. In those cases, your best bet is to turn your claim over to a collection agency. Typically, agencies work on a contingency basis: Their pay comes out of the collection. Obviously, then, you should add enough into your claim to pay the agency and still come out with what you think the supplier owes you. A representative of ACA International (the trade association of collection agencies) couldn’t give me a figure for either a minimum amount for a viable suit nor a typical contingency fee. Instead, she suggested, check each specific case with a few agencies. Log onto the membership search page of ACA’s website and search for agencies by location. If the travel supplier you’re suing doesn’t have an office in or near your home city, look for an agency with a location near the supplier’s headquarters

Disclaimer

I am not a lawyer and have no intention of giving legal advice. My comments are based on the DOT guide and other published sources. If you have any questions, consult your own lawyer.

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