Court decisions highlight need to clarify important Agent Reporting Agreement provision

Westways World Travel, Inc. v. AMR Corp., American Airlines, Inc. et al. (9th Cir. (Cal.) Jan. 22, 2008).  Despite consisting of over 70 pages, ARC’s Agent Reporting Agreement contains very few provisions that give airlines specific rights against ARC-accredited travel agents.  Most of the airline-protective provisions are in ARA Section VII, which is entitled “Agent’s Authority, General Rights and Obligations.”  For airlines, subsection H of Section VII is a critically important provision; it states in part as follows:  “The Agent shall comply with all instructions of the carrier, and shall make no representation not previously authorized by the carrier.”  Unfortunately for the airlines, Section VII.H has been held to be “ambiguous” by the Ninth Circuit in the Westways case, as well as by a California federal district court in 2006 in a separate case.

In 1999, Westways World Travel and another ARC-accredited travel agent sued American Airlines (and ARC and other entities) in a California federal district court, alleging that the defendants had engaged in an unlawful scheme to charge the agents, through debit memos, for ticketing violations for hidden city, back-to-back and point-beyond tickets.  The agents claimed that, through this scheme, the defendants had violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and breached the ARA.

In 2003, the court certified the case as a class action, but the court later granted the defendants’ motion for decertification.

In 2004, ARC was dismissed from the case pursuant to a settlement in which ARC, while denying any liability, agreed (i) not to participate in the enforcement of contested airline debit memos seeking payment from agents for hidden city, back-to-back or point-beyond tickets, (ii) to issue a statement to agents informing them of ARC’s agreement not to participate in such enforcement, and (iii) not to terminate the accreditation of any agent that refuses to pay a contested debit memo seeking payment for hidden city, back-to-back or point-beyond tickets.

In 2004, American and the other remaining defendants moved for summary judgment.  American contended that because it had the right under the ARA to issue debit memos to recover its losses arising from agents’ violation of the airline’s instructions prohibiting hidden city, back-to-back and point-beyond ticketing, its conduct in issuing such debit memos could not be considered extortion or any other predicate act needed to show a RICO violation or a breach of the ARA.

In a detailed written opinion issued in 2005, the district court ruled for the defendants.  First, it held the ARA gave American the right to issue debit memos to recover damages for agents’ failure to comply with the airline’s “instructions” within the meaning of ARA Section VII.H.  Second, it held that American, through its conditions of carriage and tariff, had given “instructions” within the meaning of Section VII.H prohibiting agents from issuing hidden city, back-to-back and point-beyond tickets, even though the conditions of carriage and tariff had been issued for passengers, not agents.  The court interpreted the Section VII.H phrase that “the Agent shall comply with all instructions of the carrier” to mean that agents were required to follow all carrier instructions, even if such instructions had been specifically issued to other parties, not to agents.  Finally, the court held that because American had the right under the ARA to issue the debit memos in question, its conduct in doing so could not constitute a RICO predicate act or a breach of the ARA.

The agents appealed, and the Ninth Circuit issued a split decision in January 2008.  The appeals court agreed that the agents’ RICO claims were deficient, reasoning that American could not be liable under that statute by simply demanding payment for amounts that the airline believed it was owed under its interpretation of the ARA.

But the Ninth Circuit disagreed with the trial court’s ruling on the agents’ breach of contract claim.  The appeals court held that the Section VII.H phrase “the Agent shall comply with all instructions of the carrier” could, in its opinion, be understood two ways:  to require that agents need only comply with “instructions” issued specifically to them, and not also with instructions issued to passengers and other parties, or, in the alternative, to require that agents comply with all instructions issued to agents, passengers and all other parties.  In addition, the court refused to overturn the trial court’s decertification of the case as a class action.  The court remanded the case for further proceedings.

The other case in which the court held Section VII.H of ARA to be ambiguous was Continental Airlines, Inc. v. Mundo Travel Corporation.  In that case, Continental had sued an ARC-accredited agent in a California federal district court, alleging that the agent had violated the ARA by issuing point-beyond tickets in violation of the “instructions” prohibiting such ticketing in the airline’s own “Booking and Ticketing Policy.”

The agent in Mundo moved to dismiss on the grounds that the airline’s claims were barred by Section I.C of the ARA, which provides that the ARA “does not, for example, address fares charged by the carrier; that is a matter between a carrier and the Agent.”  Continental responded that Section VII.H had required that the agent comply with the “instructions” against point-beyond ticketing set forth in the Booking and Ticketing Policy.  In a 2006 decision, the court denied the agent’s motion, noting that “the ARA is ambiguous” because the two ARA provisions conflicted, leaving it unclear whether the agent had been required to comply with the Booking and Ticketing Policy.  Mundo was settled a few months after the court’s decision, so there was never a definitive ruling on the enforceability of Section VII.H in that case.

Perhaps it is time for an airline to submit a proposal to ARC’s president, for referral to ARC’s board of directors or stockholders, seeking to clarify Section VII.H so airlines would stand a better chance of enforcing this important provision in court cases.  Maintaining the text of a provision that may be read multiple ways, and may conflict with other ARA provisions, only serves to keep airlines and agents in a position where their respective rights and obligations are unclear.  Unless the provision is clarified, it will be up to the courts to figure out what the provision means and its role with respect to other ARA provisions.  Aren’t the parties to a contract supposed to be the ones to do that?

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