The next time you're left standing at the gate watching your overbooked flight take off, here's a small bit of consolation: You can still sue.
The U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal by Northwest Airlines Inc. yesterday and left intact a ruling saying that air travelers who get "bumped" against their will may sue in state courts for compensatory damages.
The Minneapolis-based airline had argued that federal regulation of the airline industry prevents the 50,000 passengers who are involuntarily bumped from flights each year from suing under state laws.
The latest ruling assures Marylanders and others that they can fight the industrywide practice in court rather than accept various airline compensations, such as free tickets or cash.
But the court ruled that passengers are entitled only to compensatory damages, not punitive damages, since federal regulations "contemplate overbooking as an acceptable practice so long as passengers receive compensation."
"The reason the airlines do it is people make multiple reservations and cancel, particularly the business traveler who buys an unrestricted ticket and doesn't have to pay if he doesn't show up," said Tim Neale, a spokesman for the Washington-based Air Transport Association, which represents most of the nation's airlines.
Overbooking varies depending on how many passengers typically fail to show up for various flights, Mr. Neale said. "Most of the time it works out OK, but occasionally you do have a problem," he said.
Under rules adopted in 1978, airlines must ask volunteers to give up their seats on overbooked flights in return for free trips or cash, plus a seat on the next available flight to their destination.
Passengers bumped against their will who cannot be rebooked on another domestic flight within the hour receive the amount of their fare, or a maximum of $200. After two hours, they get twice the fare, or $400 maximum.
Passengers also keep their original tickets for later use or refund.
"There's a lot who like to get the free ticket and are more than willing to give up their seat," Mr. Neale said.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than 718,000 people volunteered to be bumped last year.
The right to sue for overbooking was established in a 1976 Supreme Court decision in a case that began after consumer advocate Ralph Nader was bumped from a flight from Washington to Hartford, Conn.
Since then, however, few people have sued, according to Alan Morrison, an attorney with Mr. Nader's Aviation Consumer Action Project in Washington.
But the case ruled on yesterday "was a particularly egregious case, because they changed the size of the plane and massively oversold tickets," he said.
The case involved a Helena, Mont., patent lawyer who was bumped in 1986 from a Northwest flight from Great Falls, Mont., to Arlington, Va. After arriving at the gate, William D. West discovered that the flight had been overbooked because Northwest had changed the plane from a Boeing 727, which carries 146, to a DC-9, which holds about half that.
He rejected $198 in "denied boarding compensation" and the chance to take another flight scheduled to arrive in the Washington area six hours later than his original flight.
Mr. West later filed suit, claiming that Northwest had breached an implied contract of good faith and fair dealing under Montana law. He sought $10,000 in actual damages and $50,000 in punitive damages.
"Similar types of action would be permitted in Maryland under its common law of contracts," said William Leibovici, chief of the division of consumer protection of the Maryland attorney general's office.
By denying Northwest's appeal, the Supreme Court cleared the way for a trial to determine whether Mr. West will be awarded compensatory damages in the 7-year-old case. Compensatory damages cover actual financial loss; punitive damages are aimed at punishing a wrongdoer and deterring conduct.