With airlines and online travel agents changing and, at times, seemingly making up random rules to prevent refunds, it’s no surprise to see lawyers out in force. But make no mistake; the class action lawyer is all about getting themselves paid, not about actually getting travelers what they deserve. In nearly every case, there are far better ways to handle this.
Why am I writing about class action lawsuits now? There are two reasons.
First, American has quietly slipped a clause into its contract of carriage that prevents you from filing a class action lawsuit. Specifically, it says:
Class Action Waiver: You agree that any lawsuit you bring against us, or any of our affiliated entities, agents, directors, employees, and/or officers related to these Conditions of Carriage, your ticket, and/or your use of or dealings with American’s website will be brought only in your individual capacity, and may not be brought in or asserted as part of a class action proceeding.
I haven’t seen this much if at all in airline world, but it isn’t an uncommon clause in corporate America. It feels dirty and unfair, but then again, travelers are probably better off avoiding these suits anyway. In a class action lawsuit, the lawyers make all the money while the class ends up wasting time and getting little.
And that brings me to the second reason this is top of mind: Southwest.
Southwest has been targeted multiple times by class actions. The infamous drink coupon suit of 2010 resulted in lawyers getting $1.65 million, the two lead plaintiffs getting a mere $15,000 each, and everyone else getting a drink coupon. Yippee.
And now, Southwest is being targeted again, this time for something that seems ridiculous. Allow me to present you with Adrian Bombin v. Southwest Airlines, Co. as Exhibit A.
As the story goes, Adrian was supposed to fly from Baltimore to Havana via Fort Lauderdale. Southwest canceled Havana service due to the coronavirus, so Adrian called reservations to get a refund. The agent said he could only get a credit, not a refund. Those are the facts as stated, and now it’s a class action lawsuit trying to help all those people denied refunds.
But here’s the thing… Southwest isn’t denying refunds. This sounds like a customer service agent screwed up or didn’t understand the policy.
As the lawsuit notes, Southwest’s contract of carriage requires refunds. Specifically, in section 9a, it states:
a. Failure to Operate as Scheduled
(1) Canceled Flights or Irregular Operations. In the event Carrier cancels or fails
to operate any flight according to Carrier’s published schedule, or changes
the schedule of any flight, Carrier will, at the request of a Passenger with a
confirmed Ticket on such flight, take one of the following actions:
(i) Transport the Passenger at no additional charge on Carrier’s next flight(s)
on which space is available to the Passenger’s intended destination, in
accordance with Carrier’s established reaccommodation practices; or
(ii) Refund the unused portion of the Passenger’s fare in accordance with
This is the most generous schedule change policy out there. In short, any schedule change will get you a refund if you want, no matter how small. So, I reached out to Southwest to see if, as alleged by the lawsuit, Southwest was refusing to follow this rule. Brian Parrish, spokesperson for the airline, sent me this:
Southwest Airlines offers some of the most Customer-friendly policies in the industry. In light of the current circumstances, we previously made additional changes to our already flexible policies. If a flight is cancelled by Southwest, Customers may select a new flight between the same origin and destination on a new date (currently extended until 60 days from the original date of travel) without paying any difference in fare, may receive travel funds for future use (currently extended to June 30, 2021), or may request a refund to the original form of payment.
In other words, the policy matches. Did Adrian go from having one agent tell him no straight to a lawsuit? I don’t know, but man, is that a bad plan. He could have just hung up and called again. Or he could have reached out to Customer Relations. He could have filed a complaint with the DOT, or he could have disputed the charge on his card as a last resort. Any of these would have ended up with him getting his money back.
But a class action lawsuit? Oh man. Now this is going to work its way through the courts, and he’ll eventually get his money back. He’ll probably also get a little more as a lead plaintiff since there’s a vague request to award “Such further and other relief the Court deems reasonable and just,” but really, it’s only the attorneys who will make out like bandits. All of this over a fare that couldn’t have been more than a couple hundred dollars… that he could easily have gotten refunded on his own.
This isn’t to say there isn’t a place for a class action lawsuit, but it’s rarely the best option out there.