Suing an airline seems to be the new American pastime. Since the coronavirus pandemic started, passengers have taken all of the legacy carriers to court, alleging they failed to refund their tickets as required by law.

  • Early last month, a passenger in Chicago sued United Airlines for refusing to issue refunds for a canceled flight despite “being entitled to a refund if the airline canceled a flight regardless of the reason.”
  • A few days later, another passenger filed a lawsuit against Delta Air Lines, accusing the carrier of acting in a “deceptive and unfair manner” in failing to honor ticket refunds and requests from its passengers after the outbreak. 
  • Less than a week later, the same law firm took American Airlines to court, alleging it forced customers into a rebooked flight or travel voucher instead of returning their money.

“Passengers are eager to take action,” says Steve Berman, a managing partner for Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, the Seattle law firm litigating the cases. “Airlines have only offered them vouchers that they won’t be able to use for the foreseeable future, and dead-end customer support phone calls. Airlines, as we expected, have made every attempt to deny responsibility.” 

It’s happening everywhere. Canada’s airlines are also being sued. European airlines are reportedly next.

“We’re probably only weeks — maybe just days — away from TV commercials that begin, ‘Have you or your loved one contracted the coronavirus as a result of traveling on a plane, bus or train? If so, you may be entitled to compensation,'” says University of Michigan lecturer and political scientist Michael Montgomery.

Why Americans want to sue their airlines

American air travelers are furious at airlines. Mostly, it’s because airlines decided to keep their money after canceling their flights. The Department of Transportation had to weigh in last month to remind carriers that they were required to refund tickets when they canceled a flight. 

But it’s not the only reason. Air travelers, long accustomed to poor service when they fly, have witnessed something remarkable in recent weeks: bad service when they aren’t flying. We’re talking long wait times when you call an airline, punitive junk fees and policies designed to keep your money.

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When Susan Stevens canceled her summer trip from Philadelphia to Copenhagen, Denmark, she asked United for a refund. It refused. She asked again and again and even appealed to a supervisor. The answer remained “no.”  

“United has received another huge bailout from our government yet refuses to refund the cost of our flights,” says Stevens, a retired publicist from Lakeside, Michigan. “I would participate in a class action suit.” 

Suing an airline isn’t that simple

Taking an airline to court isn’t easy. Because the federal government regulates airlines, cases like Stevens’ would have to be brought up in a federal court. That effectively deters a lot of lawsuits relating to prices, routes or service. 

Consumer advocates are pushing for a change. They’re urging the government to allow passengers to sue airlines in state courts, in an effort to hold the airline industry accountable to its customers. They want to tie any future airline bailouts to a change in the rules.

In the meantime, there’s small claims court. That’s where Dafina Sharpe may be headed after Delta refused to refund her canceled flight to Africa. She believes she’s entitled to a full refund under the law. Passengers can sue their airline in small claims court, but there’s a limit on the damages they can collect.

“I think any passenger who can’t fly because of COVID-19, who is having difficulty getting a cash refund from their airlines, should certainly sue because the chances of these lawsuits prevailing are high,” says Sharpe, an attorney in New York.

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Maybe there should be a law

People like John Adams, a retired systems engineer from Bradenton, Florida, say lawsuits aren’t enough. United recently canceled one of his flights but only offered him future flight credits. He’s written to his representatives, urging them to pass laws that would prevent airlines from offering vouchers instead of refunds.

“I’m a strong advocate for federal legislation to rectify these unseemly policies and practices — not just by United, but other carriers as well,” he says.

The playing field needs leveling, agrees Berman. 

“Airlines, like other major corporations, outmatch individual consumers in every aspect in a one-on-one legal fight, and they know it,” he says. “It’s an unfair fight.”