First Circuit ruling confirms that “nonrefundable” tickets are totally nonrefundable

Buck v. American Airlines, Inc. (1st Cir. Mass. Feb. 7, 2007).  Some airline customers find it difficult to accept that their “nonrefundable” tickets are truly nonrefundable.  Some have filed lawsuits against airlines, but the courts routinely dismiss these claims as preempted by the federal Airline Deregulation Act (“ADA”), which prohibits the enactment or enforcement of any state “law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier.”  See, e.g., Howell v. Alaska Airlines, Inc., 994 P.2d 901 (Wash. App. 2000).  A group of airline customers thought they had come up a clever way to avoid ADA preemption.  They were mistaken.

The plaintiffs in Buck were purchasers of nonrefundable tickets that they were unable to use.  They conceded that they were not entitled to a refund of their base fares but claimed that the 13 airlines they named as defendants had acted unlawfully by not refunding the various fees and taxes that had been collected as part of the ticket prices.  As their causes of action, the plaintiffs alleged an implied private right of action under two federal regulations governing the disclosure of certain terms in airline contracts of carriage, as well as numerous state law claims.

Like the district court, the First Circuit did not buy what the plaintiffs were selling.  The court held that only a statute, not a regulation, can serve as the source of a private right of action and that the ADA, the statute underlying the regulations on which the plaintiffs were relying, does not “permit the imputation of a private right of action against an airline.”

The court also held that the plaintiffs’ state law claims were preempted by the ADA.  The plaintiffs argued that they were making state claims in an attempt to right federal wrongs, since federal rules govern the airlines’ collection of the fees and taxes at issue.  The court rejected this inventive argument, correctly concluding that the plaintiffs’ state claims were attempts to further a state policy that those who are wronged should have “access to the courts in order to remediate that wrong.”

Note:  Just about every paragraph of this opinion features at least one vocabulary-expanding word or phrase; here are my favorites:  pleochroic (a new word for me), raiment, multitudinous, tamisage (new word #2), periphrastic (new word #3), circumlocutions, cornucopia, asseverate (new word #4), dichotomy, contextualized, supererogatory (new word #5), aperture, cabining, vagarious, ipse dixit, irreducible, elucidated.

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