Travelers Sue Mexican Airline Over Denied COVID-19 Refunds

By Lauraann Wood
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Law360 (April 9, 2020, 9:43 PM EDT) -- Mexican airline Volaris quietly canceled several of its U.S. flights to Mexico amid the coronavirus pandemic and has unlawfully refused to refund its travelers or let them rebook their flights without penalty, a proposed class action in Illinois federal court says.

Chicago resident Samantha Levey's suit filed Wednesday claims that the ultra-low-cost airline violated U.S. Department of Transportation rules and its own carriage contracts when it refused to reimburse travelers' fares after canceling their U.S. flights to Mexico without warning over the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Flight disruptions that are outside a carrier's control, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic do not relieve airlines like Volaris of their obligation to provide refunds to passengers whose flights have been canceled," her lawsuit says.

The United States and Mexico have agreed to restrict ground travel across their shared border to limit spreading the novel coronavirus, but those restrictions never applied to air travel, Levey said. Even so, the airline canceled numerous flights through April 20 and either won't return travelers' airfare or makes them pay a penalty to rebook, her suit said.

Levey seeks to represent a nationwide class of travelers who've been either been refused refunds or made to pay rebooking penalties in light of their unannounced Volaris flight cancelations. There may be thousands of class members for the suit, and the exact number can be ascertained through the airline's records, her suit says.

"We believe airlines like Volaris have been taking advantage of consumers in Illinois and elsewhere in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic," Levey's attorney, William Sweetnam of Sweetnam LLC, told Law360 in an email Thursday. "We hope that this case puts other airlines on notice that they cannot cancel flights without providing the refunds to which fliers are entitled."

Representatives for Volaris did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.

Levey and numerous other travelers bought airfare to travel to Mexico during the late winter or early spring, "when travel from the United States to warm destinations in Mexico is at its peak and fares are most expensive," her suit says. Volaris' terms of carriage for U.S.-originating travel state that "alternate transportation or compensation will be provided" to passengers in accordance with DOT rules if their flights get canceled, it says.

As part of the U.S. response to the pandemic, the DOT issued an enforcement notice to airlines last week reiterating their "longstanding obligation" to promptly refund a passenger if they cancel a flight or make significant changes the passenger doesn't accept, she said. The agency's directive said that when it comes to uncontrollable flight disruptions, the focus isn't on whether the airline could control the disruption but on "the fact that the cancellation is through no fault of the passenger," according to the suit.

Volaris canceled Levey's flight to Bajío International Airport in Mexico "without notice or explanation" the day before her scheduled March 20 flight, her suit says. She paid $636 for the four-day trip in June.

Levey says she'd made several unsuccessful attempts to reach Volaris but finally heard back from the airline on March 23, when it refused to refund her for the canceled flight. Instead, it offered her credit toward future travel that she'd have to redeem within the next 30 days, not including any flight change fees, her suit claims.

That credit was for only $404, less than the original airfare she'd paid, according to her suit. And she received the credit on the condition that she either use it for another Volaris flight by July 5 "or risk losing her total investment," the suit said.

Levey is represented by William Sweetnam of Sweetnam LLC.

Counsel information for the airline could not immediately be determined Thursday.

The case is Levey v. Concesionaria Vuela Compania de Aviacion SAPI de CV et al., case number 1:20-cv-02215, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

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