More rough news for Spirit in the press.
Michigan passenger wins judgment
Spirit canceled, never rebooked
July 15, 2007
FREE PRESS TRAVEL WRITER
Score one for the little guy.
In the middle of a long hot summer of cancelations and delays, an airline has been ordered to pay an East Lansing woman $1,350.75 after it canceled her family's flight at Detroit Metro Airport and never rebooked them.
Jane Waun sued Spirit Airlines in the small claims division of East Lansing's 54B District Court as a last resort this spring after trying unsuccessfully to resolve her beef with the airline directly.
She won her case Monday mainly because Spirit never showed up for the original hearing and didn't have a good excuse. But the judgment reimburses her hotel and meal costs, a lost night at her destination and the four tickets she had to purchase on a different airline.
Will other passengers fed up with airline bad behavior now haul them off to small claims court, too?
"I'd encourage them to give it a shot," says aviation attorney Don Frank of Okemos. Even if you don't win, "it can be cathartic."
In Waun's case, Spirit Airlines likely will pay the judgment "and move forward," says spokeswoman Alison Russell.
Still, Waun, 55, who never sued anyone before, likely won't get the one thing she really wants -- an apology.
"If Spirit just would have admitted their error and apologized," she says, "I would have flown them again."
Abandoned at Metro
On March 23, Waun, traveling out of Metro Airport with her husband and 81- and 83-year-old parents, found out that their flight, NK681 to Ft. Myers was canceled.
Counter agents would not rebook passengers. They passed out the airline's telephone number to call instead. Waun waited on hold for hours but never even got through.
Meanwhile, the family was in trouble. They had taken the bus from East Lansing and had no car. Waun had to pay for two rooms and dinner at the Westin Airport Hotel. She also had to buy four new outbound tickets on Northwest Airlines for the next day.
In the evening, she finally got through to Spirit by phone. The agent confirmed her party had never been rebooked and agreed to credit the lost outbound portion of their tickets.
Waun later wrote letters to Spirit, attempting to get reimbursed for her additional costs.
The airline declined.
So, she sued.
A rare win for passengers
In small claims court, no lawyers are used. It was up to Waun to argue her case. But she didn't have to say a word.
On May 14, she appeared before Judge Richard Ball, but no one from Spirit showed up, and she won by default.
Spirit filed a motion for rehearing, and a second court date was set July 9. That day, Michael Cox, general manager for Spirit's Detroit operations, appeared on behalf of the airline.
The judge was unsympathetic.
"Why should I set aside this judgment?" Ball asked.
Cox explained that Spirit's headquarters in Florida didn't get the information about the first hearing. Not good enough, Ball replied. He had a document signed by Spirit's local Michigan agency -- coincidentally, located just down the street from the courthouse -- proving the airline had been served with the hearing notice.
"And do you have any defense to this woman's claim?" the judge asked.
Cox said that Spirit legally has no obligation to fly any of its routes and cannot be held responsible for canceling flights. The airline's contract with its passengers, called a "contract of carriage," is clear about that, he said.
The judge was not impressed.
"I am afraid I cannot set aside the default judgment," said the judge.
Waun had won.
Records are not kept of small claims court proceedings, so there is no national data about how many passengers sue the airlines. But aviation attorneys say it is very rare to win such a case. Airlines with deep pockets can get cases dismissed from small claims court, claiming it has no authority over federal aviation law. It can even get cases moved to federal court.
The last publicized air passenger victory was in 2005 when Thatcher Stone of New York won $3,100 in small claims court for mishandled luggage and inconvenience after he and his daughter were bumped off a Continental flight en route to a ski trip to Colorado.
But bumping is different from cancellation. And Stone was hardly the average passenger -- he's a well-known aviation attorney.
Waun was a regular air traveler. And she wanted answers.
Real solution elusive
Outside the courtroom, Waun pigeonholed Cox. She asked why she and other passengers had been treated so shabbily the day their flight was canceled.
He told her that when 150 people are on a canceled flight, the counter agents can't handle them, so people have to call.
"But nobody could get through," she said. "Don't you have enough employees?"
When asked for comment by a Free Press reporter, Cox declined.
Later, people with other cases before the court that day came into the hall to congratulate Waun.
"On behalf of everyone who has been canceled by an airline, thank you," one man said.
Waun said she was sad she did not get a chance to tell the judge her whole story, but she was glad she won.
"I worked in (insurance) customer relations for a long time, answering complaint letters and calls. If someone had a complaint, the first thing I'd do is say I'd look into it. If a mistake was made, I'd apologize," she said.
Now, Spirit has 21 days to pay up. Small claims judgments cannot be appealed.
Aviation attorney Stone says Waun's win is rare because the flying public does not have many rights, even in court.
"The real issue is not the infrequent nature of these awards, but rather, Congress' unwillingness to address the issues created by more and more bumped passengers and the absence of an airline passengers' bill of rights, notwithstanding an overcrowded and overburdened air transport system," he says.
Will Waun's concerns about Spirit customer service be addressed? Did she get the attention of the airline? Spirit spokeswoman Russell says that yes, the airline has just contracted with a new Florida company to help staff the phone lines so callers won't get busy signals anymore.
To accomplish this, it will close its last Michigan call center and lay off 131 people.
Contact ELLEN CREAGER at 313-222-6498 or firstname.lastname@example.org.