When an Aviation Lawyer Gets Bumped, the Airline Pays

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Thatcher A. Stone is the kind of passenger no airline wants to tick off.

After Continental Airlines bumped Stone and his daughter from a flight last Christmas, Stone sued and took the airline to small claims court in New York.

He sent Continental two complaint letters, hoping to get some financial compensation. But he was rebuffed. So Stone sued, saying the airline had breached its contract with him and committed fraud. On Nov. 10, the court sided with Stone and awarded $3,100 in damages.

"They were betting that Thatcher Stone was some ignorant [jerk] who didn't know how to get money out of Continental," he said. "They picked the wrong guy."

Unfortunately for Continental, Stone isn't just an ordinary passenger. He's a New York-based aviation attorney and University of Virginia aviation law professor.

Last Christmas he and his 13-year-old daughter, Rebecca, were scheduled to fly to Telluride, Colo., for a week-long ski trip. When they arrived at Newark International Airport, they checked their luggage and skis and proceeded to their gate. But as the flight was boarding, Stone and his daughter were told to wait in the boarding area. After the flight filled, a Continental gate agent informed Stone that he and his daughter were bumped.

Most major airlines routinely oversell their flights to account for those passengers who fail to make the departure. Busy holiday travel periods -- such as today through Sunday -- are often the most popular periods for airlines to bump passengers. Airlines are often able to avoid denying passengers from traveling by coaxing them to give up their seats for a free ticket or travel voucher.

But when the airline can't get enough volunteers to give up their seats, it can opt to involuntarily deny passengers. When that happens, the airlines are required to find alternative travel. If the airline fails to provide a flight within two hours on a domestic trip, federal law requires that the airline pay the passenger up to $400.

That wasn't enough for Stone. He insists that Continental's actions caused him to cancel his ski trip, which included a $1,350 non-refundable deposit for his lodging.

According to the court filing, a Continental customer service representative said the airline offered him another flight two or more days later. But Stone said the next available flight that was offered was six days later.

And while the Stones didn't make their flight, their luggage did, and it took four days to get home. With all of their winter clothes on the flight, Stone said, it was impossible to book an alternative ski trip.

Continental refunded the $2,000 cost of the airline tickets. But that was not enough. So Stone wrote two letters to Continental demanding that the airline reimburse him also for the deposits on his ski lodge, lift tickets and ski-equipment rental for his daughter. He also demanded compensation for his lost luggage. The airline offered him $800 more. He refused.

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