Spirit, Hawaiian Latest Airlines To Face COVID-19 Refund Suits

By Brian Dowling
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Law360 (April 21, 2020, 6:14 PM EDT) -- Spirit Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines were both hit on Tuesday with proposed class actions claiming the carriers stole travelers' fares by not offering refunds for flights canceled during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The federal suits filed in Massachusetts and Hawaii, respectively, say the airlines are flouting the guidance of federal regulators and breaching their contracts with customers by refusing to issue refunds. The claims follow a cascade of recent lawsuits against major airlines, including Delta Air Lines Inc., JetBlue Airways Corp., United Airlines Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co., alleging the companies are bilking customers even while taking in $58 billion in federal assistance.

In Massachusetts, traveler Edward L. Manchur had paid $245 for a Spirit flight from Boston to Fort Myers, Florida, for April 9, according to the lawsuit filed on Tuesday. Weeks before the trip, the airline canceled his outbound flight and rebooked him for a flight two days earlier. Manchur asked for a refund but only received a travel voucher that he'd have to use within six months.

"The need for monetary refunds over travel vouchers is pressing during this time of crisis," Manchur said in the complaint. "Travel vouchers provide little security in this public crisis, particularly where many individual Americans need money now to pay for basics like food and rent."

Spirit was hit with a similar lawsuit on April 10 in Florida federal court.

California resident Nataly Alvarez said that she paid Hawaiian Airlines $447 to fly her family to Maui in mid-April. Hawaiian canceled the flight in late March, and her efforts to get a refund have gone nowhere, she said in the complaint, which accuses the airline of violating California's and Hawaii's consumer protection laws and makes other common law claims.

The suits center on the airlines' carriage contracts with travelers, which generally provide for refunds if the flyer isn't the one who cancels the flight. The complaints also reference an enforcement letter from the U.S. Department of Transportation to airlines directing them to issue prompt refunds when requested.

The DOT letter also makes clear that the obligation to issue refunds extends to cancellations or significant delays due to disruptions not within the carriers' control, like a pandemic.

In Alvarez' suit against Hawaiian Airlines, she estimates the class of impacted flyers would include hundreds of thousands of people. Manchur's lawsuit against Spirit doesn't venture a guess but insists the number would be clear from Spirit's ticketing records.

Democrats in the U.S. Senate are demanding that airlines pay out the estimated $10 billion in refunds to flyers on canceled trips, citing the federal rescue package to prop up the industry. The airlines have told lawmakers they are doing their best to manage customer requests while navigating the impact of the pandemic.

Representatives for the parties in the suits were not immediately available for comment.

Manchur is represented by Michael A. Borrelli.

Alvarez is represented by Birney B. Bervar of Bervar & Jones and Yeremey Krivoshey and Andrew J. Obergfell of Bursor & Fisher PA.

Counsel information for Hawaiian Airlines and Spirit Airlines was not immediately available.

The cases are Manchur v. Spirit Airlines Inc., case number 1:20-cv-10771, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, and Alvarez v. Hawaiian Airlines Inc., case number 1:20-cv-00175, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii.

--Editing by Nicole Bleier.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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