SAN FRANCISCO — It’s been a rough few years for airline customers in the United States.
Snack options are on the decline, baggage fees are on the rise, and the likelihood of being forcibly removed from a plane against your will seems to be at an all-time high.
Take this as something of a consolation for weary, under-appreciated passengers: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Wednesday revived a seven-year-old class action lawsuit against US Airways Inc., which seeks refunds of baggage charges paid by passengers whose bags were delayed or lost. The Ninth Circuit decision, a win for name plaintiff Hayley Hickcox-Huffman and her lawyers at Foley Bezek Behle & Curtis, reverses a ruling that held the passengers’ state-law contract claims were pre-empted by the Airline Deregulation Act, which prohibits states from regulating airlines prices, routes, or services.
Hickcox-Huffman sued the airline in 2010 after US Airways, now part of American Airlines, refused to refund the $15 she paid to check a bag that arrived a day after her flight from Colorado Springs, Colorado, to San Luis Obispo, California.
Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Circuit Senior Judge Andrew Kleinfeld found that U.S. Magistrate Judge Howard Lloyd of the Northern District of California had erred when he found the plaintiff’s claims were related to an airline “service” and pre-empted. Kleinfeld wrote that language of the airline’s agreement with passengers bound U.S. Airways to deliver checked baggage on arrival.
“No state law made US Airways promise timely delivery of the first bag for $15,” Kleinfeld wrote. “Enforcing its voluntarily undertaken contractual obligation comports with the purpose of the Airline Deregulation Act, which ‘simply holds parties to their agreements—in this instance, to business judgments an airline made public about its rates and services.’”
Kleinfeld quoted from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1995 decision in American Airlines v. Wolens, which found that common-law breach of contract claims aren’t pre-empted by the Airline Deregulation Act.
The Ninth Circuit’s decision in the case had been held up as the justices took up a separate Airline Deregulation Act case, said Foley Bezek’s Justin Karczag, who argued the case for Hickcox-Huffman in 2014.Now that it’s moving forward, Karczag said the case is “really promising for class certification” since airlines are required to report their rates of lost, delayed and destroyed bags to the Transportation Security Administration and they also keep detailed records of what bags belong to which passenger. “The numbers are out there,” said Karczag, estimating that US Airways mishandled more than 100,000 bags per year.
Michael McGuinness of O’Melveny & Myers, who represents the airline, didn’t respond to an email message Wednesday.