High court considers rights of airline passengers


WASHINGTON -- With several Supreme Court justices acting much like interested air travelers, the court spent an hour yesterday exploring the legal rights of disappointed or angry passengers who want to sue airlines.

A lively hearing before the court focused on American Airlines' claim that it should be immune to state court lawsuits for cutting the earned mileage of passengers when it revamped its "frequent flier" program six years ago.

Passengers who take part in that program -- about 4 million nationwide -- contend that American broke its promise to frequent fliers. American insists that a 1978 federal law, deregulating the airline industry, protects it from lawsuits in state court based on that kind of claim.

Yesterday's hearing, however, ranged widely over passengers' other grievances, too, including questions about whether they could go to court with claims that airlines are to blame for plane crashes, lost luggage or overbooking.

By coincidence, the hearing occurred hours after an American commuter plane had crashed in Indiana. Although airlines' liability for accidents like that is not directly at issue in the pending case, the first question asked from the bench touched on it.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist asked the Washington lawyer for American, Bruce J. Ennis Jr., whether the airline was insisting that federal law barred post-accident lawsuits. Mr. Ennis replied that it was not, and that airlines need legal immunity only to state-court claims that have a real effect on their rates, routes and service.

HTC Mr. Ennis had told the court in papers filed earlier that the industry was not trying to bar post-accident lawsuits in state court. The passengers who have sued in the Illinois case, however, have contended that those lawsuits would be jeopardized if American wins the current case before the court in a broad ruling.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told the airline's lawyer that a plane crash might have a major effect on the service an airline offers to its passengers. But Mr. Ennis argued that lawsuits based on such crashes did not represent claims by passengers that they have a "direct right to a particular rate" -- the kind of right that he said the passengers were seeking in their "frequent flier" claims.

The passengers' attorney, Gilbert W. Gordon, raised the issue of post-accident lawsuits, arguing that those lawsuits could be ruled out if American won the frequent-flier case on a sweeping legal theory. "This court must see this case in context," the lawyer suggested.

The lawyers disputed whether passengers who lose frequent-flier credits will have any way to protest if they cannot sue in state court. Mr. Ennis said the Transportation Department would consider their complaints, but Mr. Gordon said it has no authority to do so.

A Supreme Court ruling on the case is expected by next summer.

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