January 19, 2009
Flight Delays Could Lead to Suit for Breach of Contract
Passengers may be able to sue airlines for breach of contract if flights are delayed too long on the tarmac, according to rules proposed by the Department of Transportation.
The agency published details last month on the proposed rules, originally developed in response to worsening delays and high-profile incidents -- perhaps most notably a 2007 Valentine's Day ice storm that left some JetBlue Airways passengers stranded on planes at New York's Kennedy International for upward of 10 hours.
If adopted, the rules would require airlines to develop contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays -- including time limits for such delays. Those contingency plans and limits would become part of each airline's contract of carriage, a legally binding agreement that outlines an airline's responsibilities to passengers.
Also under the proposed rules, the agency would declare flights that remain "chronically delayed" to be an "unfair and deceptive practice," opening carriers up to possible civil penalties. The Department of Transportation would require carriers to publish flight-delay data on their Web sites.
Carriers are likely to be wary of changes to their contracts of carriage. "We agree with the emphasis placed on consumer protections, and we think that this proposal is an improvement over the prior one," said Elizabeth Merida, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group representing airlines. "However, there are a number of issues raised by this proposal which have yet to be resolved, including items relating to the contents of carriers' contracts of carriage."
Passengers have sued carriers for tarmac delays in the past, but those suits normally don't cite a breach of contract, said David Hayes, an aviation lawyer who primarily represents airlines.
Kate Hanni, executive director of Flyersrights.org, a passengers' rights group, says that the proposed rules lack strength because they neither levy new fines nor would they require DOT approval of airlines' contingency plans for tarmac delays.
[Meredith R. Miller - h/t Sheila Scheuerman at TortsProf]
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