Northwest loses to irked Montanan


November 12, 1990|By Tom Belden | Tom Belden,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- When William D. West got bumped from a Northwest Airlines flight in 1986, he not only got mad. The Helena, Mont., lawyer set out to get even as well.

Now, a federal appeals court has ruled that he had the right to turn down free tickets and sue Northwest for damages. The airline has asked the appeals court to reconsider its decision.

The decision in the West case was the only victory for airline passengers in three recent court rulings. Federal appeals courts ruled in favor of airlines in two other cases, giving the carriers the right to control sale of their frequent-flier tickets and affirming the federal government's power over the states' in air-fare advertising.

Mr. West was flying on a $198 non-refundable ticket from Great Falls, Mont., to Washington when Northwest substituted a 78-passenger DC-9 jet for the 146-passenger 727 that had been scheduled. When Mr. West was bumped, the best alternative flights would have gotten him to Washington Dulles Airport at 3 a.m. -- six hours after he was supposed to arrive at National Airport.

Rather than accept $198 in compensation, Mr. West sued Northwest in federal court, contending that the 1978 deregulation law that gave the federal government power over airlines didn't give carriers the right to violate Montana law. In Montana, particularly tough laws require good-faith conduct between buyers and sellers in a making contracts and allow suits for punitive damages if they're violated.

Although Mr. West lost at the district court level, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco found in his favor, affirming the right of a bumped passenger to turn down free tickets and sue the airline for damages.

Mr. West's success so far, however, hasn't led advocates for airline travelers to recommend that everyone bumped from an overbooked flight sue for damages.

In general, such passengers probably are better off accepting compensation rather than going through Mr. West's ordeal, according to Cornish Hitchcock, a lawyer with the Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington. The group, founded by Ralph Nader, helped represent Mr. West.

Mr. Nader's experience of getting bumped from an overbooked flight in 1972 led to the airlines' practice of offering compensation to passengers. The system has evolved into an auction process in which $100, $200 or more, or free tickets for future travel, are offered to passengers who volunteer to take a later flight.

Mr. West stands to recover a substantial amount under Montana law if he wins, Mr. Hitchcock said.

Northwest has petitioned the appeals court for a rehearing. If that fails, the airline could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Mr. Hitchcock said.

"We generally recommend that people take the money or take the free ticket as a quick and easy way of resolving the matter," Mr. Hitch

cock said. "The litigation can drag on for some time, and there's no guarantee of recovery."

In a separate case, the 9th Circuit Court dealt a blow to frequent fliers who might want to sell the free tickets they earn from airline bonus programs.

The court said Trans World Airlines had the right to prohibit frequent fliers from selling their bonus coupons to brokers, who in turn resell them at a profit.

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