Montreal Convention eats passenger’s breakfast claim

Knowlton v. American Airlines, Inc. (D. Md. Jan. 31, 2007).  The passenger’s ticket for international travel included the notation “breakfast” for one of the flights.  However, during that flight the passenger was told by a flight attendant that the airline had changed its policy and that she had to pay $3.00 if she wished to have breakfast.

The passenger filed a class action in a state court, alleging that the “breakfast” notation had created a contractual obligation that the airline provide her with breakfast at no additional charge and that the airline had breached this obligation.  Asserting federal question removal jurisdiction, the airline removed the case to federal court on the grounds that the passenger’s state law claim arose under, and was completed preempted by, the Montreal Convention, an international treaty.

The passenger moved to remand the case to the state court.  The passenger contended that because her claim was for non-performance of a contractual obligation, it was not covered by the Convention – unlike the three types of claims for which airlines are liable under the Convention (death or bodily injury (Article 17), cargo damage (Article 18) and flight delay (Article 19)) – and thus not preempted by the Convention.

Recognizing that there is a “split of authority” in the courts on this issue, the court ruled that the Convention completely preempts all state law claims arising out of international flights.  The court explained that it had been persuaded to find in favor of complete preemption by the Convention’s emphasis on creating a uniform system of liability, but its concluding statement shows that it had also been influenced by the minimal nature of the alleged breach of contract:  “As a matter of public policy, airlines should not be subject to contract claims in state courts involving a three-dollar breakfast.”

Thus, in this court and in many others, where the Convention applies but does not specifically provide a remedy for the passenger, the passenger cannot look to state law for a remedy.  One can only wonder whether the ruling would have been different if the passenger had been traveling in first class and had been told that she had to pay $50 for her dinner.

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