Legal Turbulence: The Courts's Misconstrual of the Airline Deregulation Act's Preemption Clause and the Effect on Passengers' Rights

By Rosenthal, Daniel H. | Duke Law Journal, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Legal Turbulence: The Courts's Misconstrual of the Airline Deregulation Act's Preemption Clause and the Effect on Passengers' Rights


Rosenthal, Daniel H., Duke Law Journal


INTRODUCTION

The date was January 2, 1999. A large snowstorm had slammed into Detroit that afternoon, stranding a number of Northwest Airlines airplanes on snow-covered taxiways and tarmacs. (1) Many of the more than 7000 passengers returning from New Year's vacations could not deplane. (2) Some waited as many as eleven hours. (3) Few of the planes contained enough food and beverages for the affected passengers, and many had overflowing toilets. (4) The airport closed, but Northwest continued to hope the planes would depart, despite the contrary pleas of its on-site managers. (5) Even after every other airline had shut down its operations, Northwest's planes remained on the taxiways. (6) When Northwest finally reversed its decision and tried to unload the passengers, it found that there were not enough accessible gates for all of the planes. (7)

The result was a traveler's worst nightmare. Imprisoned against their will, the passengers seemingly lacked basic rights. As one observer commented, the "Great Wait ... gave passengers used to living in a mobile society a dose of a little-appreciated reality: Once your flight leaves the gate, your life is not your own. The airline rules." (8) A few weeks after the incident, some passengers received free vouchers to travel on Northwest. (9) For many of them, however, that was not enough. Several of the passengers brought tort complaints against the airline in state court. (10) The airline responded by claiming that the Airline Deregulation Act (11) preempted the state law claims since the grievances were related to its service. (12) Finally, two years later, the parties reached agreement on a $7.1 million settlement. (13) In plaintiffs' lawyer Lawrence Charfoos's words, the settlement produced a "flashing-red-light message to airline management that passengers do have rights." (14)

Despite the plaintiffs' success in this egregious case, the scope of passengers' legally actionable rights remains a hotly debated topic. In early 2001, after two summers of disorder, the public's opinion of the commercial aviation industry reached an all-time low. (15) In response, Congress held a series of hearings and threatened to approve a robust passenger rights bill despite industry lobbying efforts. (16) Then, on September 11, terrorists used airplanes to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and Congressional debate shifted to airport security and safety concerns. (17) Congress immediately acted to indemnify the airline industry from civil liability for personal and property damages resulting from the violence. (18) It also approved legislation to rejuvenate the crippled airline industry via a package of financial compensation and loan guarantees. (19)

More than six months after the horrific attacks, as airlines have altered business plans and cut flights in the race to reorganize profitably, (20) passengers' lack of rights has again resurfaced as a serious problem. (21) This Note addresses the appropriate scope of passenger rights from several different perspectives. Part I details how airlines increasingly victimize passengers and take advantage of a lack of incentives to remedy serious deficiencies. Part I also identifies the Deregulation Act's preemption clause as the source of airlines' defense to otherwise viable tort claims. Part II examines the body of law interpreting the Deregulation Act's preemption clause and concludes that passengers lack both state and federal remedies to most tortious conduct by airlines. In analyzing this jurisprudence, Part II argues that the Court's interpretation of the Deregulation Act is inconsistent with its preemption clause decisions rendered more recently under other statutes. Specifically, it draws parallels to the Court's decision in a recent case involving the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act's preemption clause. (22) Finally, this Note concludes that the Court must narrow the Deregulation Act's preemptive scope and provide passengers with a remedy to actionable conduct by the airlines. …

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