Spirit’s website clearly explains its luggage-fee structure, but the class action accuses the airline of not properly notifying consumers who booked fares on third-party websites.
A federal appeals court breathed new life into a lawsuit filed against Spirit Airlines, which accuses the company of slapping passengers with hidden baggage fees.
Reuters reports that the suit accuses Spirit of misleading its customers. Passengers who purchased flights on third-party booking websites, like Cheapoair, Expedia and Priceline, purportedly weren’t warned that their tickets didn’t include complimentary carry-on bags.
In its ruling, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said that 22 passengers can sue the airline for breach of contract. That’s because Spirit may not have promptly notified consumers about its fees, which include significant at-the-gate charges for carry-on bags.
The panel also noted that Spirit’s policies appeared somewhat ambiguous.
As Reuters writes, Spirit—along with many other budget airlines—relies on ‘ancillary fees to offset the financial drag from lower base fares.’ With Spirit, little is free: customers pay for carry-on bags, checked luggage, and seat selection. The company’s aircraft lack in-flight entertainment and feature closely packed, non-reclining seats.
The only freebie passengers get is a personal item, defined as a “small backpack,” purse or handbag.
The plaintiffs in the case, says Reuters, accuse Spirit of milking potentially ambiguous policies to collect “gotcha” bag fees at the airport. In many cases, the fees exceeded the cost of passengers’ tickets, totaling millions of dollars annually.
Spirit, though, has pushed back against the suit, saying its “contract of carriage” specifically details passengers’ bag allowances. And the company isn’t kidding—in the past several years, it’s overhauled its web booking procedure to ensure customers know what they’re getting themselves into.
Last year, a U.S. district court in New York ruled in favor of Spirit, granting the airline’s motion for dismissal.
“By the Plaintiffs’ own admission, Spirit did not agree to free carry-on baggage,” wrote Judge William F. Kuntz. “Plaintiffs readily acknowledge that there was only an agreement as to ‘the price term, destination and dates of travel, and no other terms were either disclosed or made part of the contract.””
Kuntz suggests that the plaintiffs “purport to input their own subjective “understanding” of airline fee structures and their “expectation that a carry on bag was included in the contracted price.””
But that hasn’t stopped many passengers from glossing over their contracts. It also may not absolve Spirit from responsibility, assuming it purposefully concealed information from customers booking off third-party websites.
The complaint, says PR Newswire, cites the case of one woman, who claims to have been “treated rudely” before being charged $100.00 for a carry-on. Another woman had to stuff her purse inside a backpack to avoid an additional fee.
Attorney John Hermina of the Hermina Law Group, who’s representing the plaintiffs, posited the ruling as a net win.
“This is a great victory for air travelers nationwide,” Hermina said. “The Second Circuit has, once again, shown its sophistication in dealing with well-established legal doctrine.”
However, the court’s reversal simply concedes an ambiguity in the term “price,” allowing the suit to move forward, finding “the remainder of the parties’ arguments […] to be without merit.”