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.
Unlike most passengers who have unsuccessfully sued airlines for fraud whenever the airline failed to provide a service, Stone also sued for breach of contract.
Manhattan Civil Court Judge Diane A. Lebedeff ruled that a passenger was able to sue for contract issues under New York law if the passenger bought a ticket, was denied boarding, refused the airline's compensation offer and suffered damages.
"It is well settled that an award for inconvenience, delay and uncertainty is cognizable under New York law," Lebedeff wrote in her 13-page ruling. Lebedeff ruled that Continental failed to offer any compensation to Stone in writing, which was required by law.
She awarded Stone $1,360 for his non-refundable lodging expenses, $1,000 for his delay and $750 for the loss of the use of the contents in his luggage. Lebedeff also added interest to the monetary awards from Dec. 25, the date of the bumping.
Continental spokesman David Messing declined to comment on whether the airline planned to appeal the ruling.
"We are always sorry when this happens, but the Department of Transportation allows overbooking of flights because so many airline customers book flights and then do not show up without previously canceling," Messing said in a statement. "If an oversale occurs, we try to offer alternative flights, refund the ticket, help make other arrangements, or offer some form of denied boarding compensation, but that is not always acceptable to the customer."
Whether Stone's case sets a precedent for future lawsuits was unclear. But Stone, 50, said airline passengers who are denied boarding should be more aggressive in fighting back.
Stone isn't afraid to raise a little Cain, as anyone who calls his cell phone will discover. Stone programmed his phone's ring-back to play the Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" instead of a standard ring tone.
Stone advises travelers to avoid getting involuntarily bumped by ensuring that they have a seat assignment before they arrive at the airport. And if a traveler is bumped involuntarily, Stone says, the passenger should not be so quick to accept the airline's compensation.
"Figure out your costs, put all of that together in a letter, and send it to the airline. If they tell you no, go to small claims court, where you can fight them yourself," he said.
Stone said he still hadn't received his check, but he was "still waiting."
A First-Class Turkey
If you can't get a first-class upgrade to Los Angeles tomorrow on United Airlines, it may be because a turkey beat you to the seat.
After President Bush offers his official pardon for this year's Thanksgiving turkey today, the turkey and its handler will be flown first class from Dulles to Los Angeles for a trip to Disneyland. United spokeswoman Robin Urbansky declined to comment on how much the flight would cost the airline, which is in bankruptcy protection, or if the turkey used its frequent-flier miles for the upgrade. United dubbed the flight Turkey One.