Airline battles frequent flyer mileage brokers in federal court

May 26, 2008

Alaska Airlines, Inc. v. Carey (W.D. Wash. Apr. 15, 2008).  The terms and conditions Alaska Airlines’ frequent flyer program, known as the Mileage Plan, prohibit its members from selling, purchasing or bartering miles or award tickets, and they state that miles and award tickets “are void if transferred for cash or other consideration.”

In 2007, Alaska Airlines filed a lawsuit against Bradley and Celeste Carey and their company, Carey Travel, Inc., seeking damages arising from, and injunctive relief against, the defendants’ brokering of plan miles and award tickets.  According to the airline, the defendants have operated a scheme in which they buy miles from plan members (which renders the miles void), redeem the miles for award tickets and then sell those tickets to their customers, who use them to travel on the airline’s flights.  In essence, according to the airline, the defendants have tortiously induced plan members to violate the plan and have fraudulently caused the airline to issue tickets and provide transportation based on void miles and award tickets.

In response, the defendants made a novel argument.  They moved to dismiss most of the counts of the complaint on the grounds that the contract between the airline and plan members, which consists of the plan’s terms and conditions, is “both illusory AND unconscionable.”  The defendants argued that contract is illusory because it is “unilaterally modifiable” by the airline, and that it is unconscionable because it is one-sided (particularly because it gives the airline the right to terminate the plan) and because plan members have no opportunity to bargain over the terms and conditions.  The defendants contended that because the contract does not exist or is unenforceable, the airline’s causes of action that are premised on the existence of such contract, such as its cause of action for tortious interference with contract, fail to state a claim for relief.

The court denied the motion to dismiss, holding that defendants had raised this issue too early in the case and indicating that the defendants could proceed with discovery and then file a motion for summary judgment on this issue.  Undaunted, the defendants moved that the court reconsider its order, boldly suggesting that perhaps the court had not “looked at, reviewed, or carefully studied” the plan’s terms and conditions.

The court denied the motion for reconsideration.  Exercising considerable restraint, the court indicated that it had in fact carefully reviewed the terms and conditions and, as proof, pointed out that it had cited certain terms and conditions in its prior order.  The court then noted that contract provisions allowing a party to terminate a contract do not render the contract illusory where the termination can only be exercised upon the occurrence of specified conditions.  The court held that because the contract requires that the airline give 180 days advance notice before terminating the plan, the termination provision did not render the contract illusory.  The court also noted that if the airline decided to eliminate the advance notice provision and terminate the plan immediately, a plan member might have a good argument that the contract, as interpreted by the airline, was illusory, but “that is not this case.”

Note:  In March, after the court issued its order denying the motion to dismiss, the defendants filed a 41-page class action counterclaim and third party complaint alleging, among other things, that Alaska Airlines, “its favored frequent flyer mile broker, Points.com” and Delta Airlines, American Airlines, Northwest Airlines and Continental Airlines (as “unnamed co-conspirators”), have violated federal antitrust statutes by conspiring to eliminate all frequent flyer mileage brokers and monopolize the mileage market and that an in-house attorney and a senior manager of Alaska Airlines are also liable for these antitrust violations.  The defendants filed a similar counterclaim in a case that United Airlines had brought against them in 2005 for brokering Mileage Plus miles and awards.

Update:  On October 30, 2009, the court entered an order granting summary judgment for Alaska Airlines and a permanent injunction against the defendants.  On April 2, 2010, the court awarded Alaska Airlines attorneys’ fees of $122,273 and litigation expenses of $4,545 in connection with its successful claim that the defendants had violated the Washington Consumer Protection Act.  On September 16, 2010, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment and permanent injunction rulings, as discussed here.


Court rules on summary judgment motions in charter flights class action

April 28, 2008

In re Nigeria Charter Flights Contract Litigation (E.D.N.Y. Oct. 25, 2007).  In 2002, World Airways, Inc. and Ritetime Aviation and Travel Services, Inc. entered into a charter aircraft services agreement under which World agreed to supply Ritetime with round-trip flights between points in the U.S. and Lagos, Nigeria.  The charter flights began but, by the end of 2003, Ritetime owed World over $2 million, leading World to discontinue its U.S.-Nigeria operations.  World’s action stranded hundreds of passengers who had traveled on outbound flights and left others who had bought tickets for 2004 unable to travel at all.

After the passengers sued World, Ritetime and its CEO in courts throughout the U.S., the federal cases were consolidated in the Eastern District of New York, which certified a class of plaintiffs in 2006.  The plaintiffs alleged that World is liable under the Montreal Convention for its failure to transport them, and they also alleged state law claims for breach of contract, negligence and fraud.

World moved for summary judgment, contending that (i) the Montreal Convention preempts the plaintiffs’ state law claims, (ii) even if the plaintiffs’ state law contract claims are not preempted, they should be dismissed because there is no privity of contract between World and the plaintiffs, and (iii) even if the Convention does not preempt the plaintiffs’ negligence and fraud claims, the federal Airline Deregulation Act preempts those claims.  The plaintiffs filed a cross-motion for summary judgment.

The court granted World’s motion as to the plaintiffs’ delay claims under the Convention but denied it as to their breach of contract and tort claims.  The court also denied the plaintiffs’ cross-motion.  The court’s specific rulings are as follows.

Montreal Convention preemption.  Delay in international air transportation is governed by Article 19 of the Convention, and whenever the Convention applies, it preempts all state law claims for matters that fall within the scope of its application.  Article 22(1) limits an airline’s liability for a passenger’s delay claim to 4,150 Special Drawing Rights, or about $6,750.  The Convention does not govern nonperformance of a contract of carriage.  The court held that the Convention did not preempt the plaintiffs’ state law claims, ruling that their claims were for nonperformance, not for delay.  The court reasoned that World had “simply refused to transport” the plaintiffs, without offering them alternate transportation, “rather than merely delaying them.”  Of course, this ruling meant that the plaintiffs could not maintain their delay claims under the Convention, and the court granted World’s motion with respect to such claims.

Privity/agency.  The court held that while the tickets themselves did not establish contracts between the plaintiffs and World, factual issues prevented it from granting summary judgment to either side on the issue of World’s liability for Ritetime’s conduct.  The court ruled that the evidence presented was insufficient for it to decide whether the plaintiffs had bought their tickets directly from World; the plaintiffs presented evidence that they had done so, while World presented contradictory evidence.  Similarly, the court held that the existence of disputed facts prevented it from determining whether, as the plaintiffs alleged, Ritetime was World’s agent under theories of actual or apparent authority or that World had ratified Ritetime’s ticket sales.

ADA preemption.  The court rejected World’s contention that the federal Airline Deregulation Act preempted the plaintiffs’ fraud and negligence claims.  The ADA preempts certain state tort (and other) claims “related to a price, route, or service” of an airline.  However, some New York federal courts will refuse to rule that a tort claim is preempted where an airline has engaged in “outrageous” conduct that went “beyond the scope of normal aircraft operations.”  The court held that the ADA did not preempt the tort claims in this case because World’s refusal to transport the plaintiffs constituted “outrageous” conduct.


Court decisions highlight need to clarify important Agent Reporting Agreement provision

March 16, 2008

Westways World Travel, Inc. v. AMR Corp., American Airlines, Inc. et al. (9th Cir. (Cal.) Jan. 22, 2008).  Despite consisting of over 70 pages, ARC’s Agent Reporting Agreement contains very few provisions that give airlines specific rights against ARC-accredited travel agents.  Most of the airline-protective provisions are in ARA Section VII, which is entitled “Agent’s Authority, General Rights and Obligations.”  For airlines, subsection H of Section VII is a critically important provision; it states in part as follows:  “The Agent shall comply with all instructions of the carrier, and shall make no representation not previously authorized by the carrier.”  Unfortunately for the airlines, Section VII.H has been held to be “ambiguous” by the Ninth Circuit in the Westways case, as well as by a California federal district court in 2006 in a separate case.

In 1999, Westways World Travel and another ARC-accredited travel agent sued American Airlines (and ARC and other entities) in a California federal district court, alleging that the defendants had engaged in an unlawful scheme to charge the agents, through debit memos, for ticketing violations for hidden city, back-to-back and point-beyond tickets.  The agents claimed that, through this scheme, the defendants had violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and breached the ARA.

In 2003, the court certified the case as a class action, but the court later granted the defendants’ motion for decertification.

In 2004, ARC was dismissed from the case pursuant to a settlement in which ARC, while denying any liability, agreed (i) not to participate in the enforcement of contested airline debit memos seeking payment from agents for hidden city, back-to-back or point-beyond tickets, (ii) to issue a statement to agents informing them of ARC’s agreement not to participate in such enforcement, and (iii) not to terminate the accreditation of any agent that refuses to pay a contested debit memo seeking payment for hidden city, back-to-back or point-beyond tickets.

In 2004, American and the other remaining defendants moved for summary judgment.  American contended that because it had the right under the ARA to issue debit memos to recover its losses arising from agents’ violation of the airline’s instructions prohibiting hidden city, back-to-back and point-beyond ticketing, its conduct in issuing such debit memos could not be considered extortion or any other predicate act needed to show a RICO violation or a breach of the ARA.

In a detailed written opinion issued in 2005, the district court ruled for the defendants.  First, it held the ARA gave American the right to issue debit memos to recover damages for agents’ failure to comply with the airline’s “instructions” within the meaning of ARA Section VII.H.  Second, it held that American, through its conditions of carriage and tariff, had given “instructions” within the meaning of Section VII.H prohibiting agents from issuing hidden city, back-to-back and point-beyond tickets, even though the conditions of carriage and tariff had been issued for passengers, not agents.  The court interpreted the Section VII.H phrase that “the Agent shall comply with all instructions of the carrier” to mean that agents were required to follow all carrier instructions, even if such instructions had been specifically issued to other parties, not to agents.  Finally, the court held that because American had the right under the ARA to issue the debit memos in question, its conduct in doing so could not constitute a RICO predicate act or a breach of the ARA.

The agents appealed, and the Ninth Circuit issued a split decision in January 2008.  The appeals court agreed that the agents’ RICO claims were deficient, reasoning that American could not be liable under that statute by simply demanding payment for amounts that the airline believed it was owed under its interpretation of the ARA.

But the Ninth Circuit disagreed with the trial court’s ruling on the agents’ breach of contract claim.  The appeals court held that the Section VII.H phrase “the Agent shall comply with all instructions of the carrier” could, in its opinion, be understood two ways:  to require that agents need only comply with “instructions” issued specifically to them, and not also with instructions issued to passengers and other parties, or, in the alternative, to require that agents comply with all instructions issued to agents, passengers and all other parties.  In addition, the court refused to overturn the trial court’s decertification of the case as a class action.  The court remanded the case for further proceedings.

The other case in which the court held Section VII.H of ARA to be ambiguous was Continental Airlines, Inc. v. Mundo Travel Corporation.  In that case, Continental had sued an ARC-accredited agent in a California federal district court, alleging that the agent had violated the ARA by issuing point-beyond tickets in violation of the “instructions” prohibiting such ticketing in the airline’s own “Booking and Ticketing Policy.”

The agent in Mundo moved to dismiss on the grounds that the airline’s claims were barred by Section I.C of the ARA, which provides that the ARA “does not, for example, address fares charged by the carrier; that is a matter between a carrier and the Agent.”  Continental responded that Section VII.H had required that the agent comply with the “instructions” against point-beyond ticketing set forth in the Booking and Ticketing Policy.  In a 2006 decision, the court denied the agent’s motion, noting that “the ARA is ambiguous” because the two ARA provisions conflicted, leaving it unclear whether the agent had been required to comply with the Booking and Ticketing Policy.  Mundo was settled a few months after the court’s decision, so there was never a definitive ruling on the enforceability of Section VII.H in that case.

Perhaps it is time for an airline to submit a proposal to ARC’s president, for referral to ARC’s board of directors or stockholders, seeking to clarify Section VII.H so airlines would stand a better chance of enforcing this important provision in court cases.  Maintaining the text of a provision that may be read multiple ways, and may conflict with other ARA provisions, only serves to keep airlines and agents in a position where their respective rights and obligations are unclear.  Unless the provision is clarified, it will be up to the courts to figure out what the provision means and its role with respect to other ARA provisions.  Aren’t the parties to a contract supposed to be the ones to do that?


Montreal Convention eats passenger’s breakfast claim

February 5, 2007

Knowlton v. American Airlines, Inc. (D. Md. Jan. 31, 2007).  The passenger’s ticket for international travel included the notation “breakfast” for one of the flights.  However, during that flight the passenger was told by a flight attendant that the airline had changed its policy and that she had to pay $3.00 if she wished to have breakfast.

The passenger filed a class action in a state court, alleging that the “breakfast” notation had created a contractual obligation that the airline provide her with breakfast at no additional charge and that the airline had breached this obligation.  Asserting federal question removal jurisdiction, the airline removed the case to federal court on the grounds that the passenger’s state law claim arose under, and was completed preempted by, the Montreal Convention, an international treaty.

The passenger moved to remand the case to the state court.  The passenger contended that because her claim was for non-performance of a contractual obligation, it was not covered by the Convention – unlike the three types of claims for which airlines are liable under the Convention (death or bodily injury (Article 17), cargo damage (Article 18) and flight delay (Article 19)) – and thus not preempted by the Convention.

Recognizing that there is a “split of authority” in the courts on this issue, the court ruled that the Convention completely preempts all state law claims arising out of international flights.  The court explained that it had been persuaded to find in favor of complete preemption by the Convention’s emphasis on creating a uniform system of liability, but its concluding statement shows that it had also been influenced by the minimal nature of the alleged breach of contract:  “As a matter of public policy, airlines should not be subject to contract claims in state courts involving a three-dollar breakfast.”

Thus, in this court and in many others, where the Convention applies but does not specifically provide a remedy for the passenger, the passenger cannot look to state law for a remedy.  One can only wonder whether the ruling would have been different if the passenger had been traveling in first class and had been told that she had to pay $50 for her dinner.


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