Frontier Airlines is not liable for refunding airfares to people who canceled their flights or whose flights the company itself canceled at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a federal judge in Colorado ruled on Monday.
The plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit claimed Frontier knew it would cancel flights and be required to provide refunds, but instead induced customers into cancelling themselves so that the company only had to provide a travel credit. Those travel credits expired after 90 days, which allegedly rendered them worthless during the pandemic.
But U.S. District Court Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer dismissed the breach of contract claim, finding that nothing Frontier allegedly did appeared to break the terms and conditions of travel.
“Plaintiffs are mistaken about what the contract requires. The Contract does not require those who cancel their own flights prior to departure to be issued a monetary refund,” Brimmer wrote in a Sept. 13 order.
The named plaintiffs in the consolidated lawsuit are residents of more than half a dozen states who reported purchasing tickets ranging from $227 to $5,132 for themselves or their families. Kelli Capra of Colorado allegedly bought tickets from Denver to Puerto Vallarta in January 2020, only to be given travel credits that expired in June of that year after she canceled her reservation.
Frontier has faced allegations of deceptive practices not just from the plaintiffs. In September, Attorney General Phil Weiser reported receiving more than 100 consumer complaints about Frontier since March 2020, more than any other company. Those complaints also centered on the airline’s refusal to provide refunds or promptly redeem flight credits.
He called on the U.S. Department of Transportation to investigate Frontier’s flight change policies and customer service practices.
“The Attorney General is reviewing the court ruling and what it means for Colorado consumers,” Weiser’s office said in a statement on Thursday. “Airline customers have a right to be treated fairly and not be tricked into flight cancellations for vouchers with little use. This is yet another example of why Congress should pass legislation to authorize state attorneys general to enforce federal airline consumer protection laws and protect the millions of Americans that rely on airline travel each day.“
Frontier is headquartered in Denver and operates more than 400 daily flights. In March 2020, as governments and private entities increasingly enacted COVID-19 response measures, Frontier experienced high call volumes from people who wanted to cancel their flights or, in some cases, book flights using the extremely low rates the carrier implemented.
According to Frontier policy, passengers who cancelled their own tickets have 90 days to use the credited fare for another flight. The airline also provided a $50 voucher. The plaintiffs alleged that Frontier "bombarded" them with emails requesting that they cancel their reservations. This, the lawsuit contended, was a tactic to preclude the company from paying refunds when it would inevitably have to cancel the flights.
"Frontier, however, concealed that material information from Plaintiffs and inundated them with coercive and purportedly time-sensitive emails urging them to preemptively cancel their flights in exchange for credits subject to severe and undisclosed restrictions," wrote attorneys for the plaintiffs. "Frontier did this to ensure it could later argue such customers forfeited their right to refund."
Frontier countered that it did not matter if passengers failed to use their travel credits within the deadline. Furthermore, by providing $50 vouchers, the airline gave customers "more than what they were entitled to under the Contract."
Brimmer found there was no legal basis for holding Frontier liable for refunds because the company sent preemptive emails to customers.
"If the expectation was that, if they cancelled their flight before Frontier did they would receive a cash refund, plaintiffs have provided no allegations that such an expectation would have been reasonable given that the Contract makes clear that they are entitled to a 90-day credit that has 'no cash or refund value'," the judge wrote.
For the plaintiffs whose flights Frontier canceled or made significant schedule changes to, Brimmer similarly found the allegations insufficient to show that Frontier broke its contract and owed the passengers anything.
The plaintiffs pointed to an enforcement notice that the Department of Transportation issued in April 2020 reminding airlines of the longstanding obligation and practice of providing refunds in the wake of emergencies like the 9/11 terror attacks and Hurricane Katrina. But because the government issued its notice after plaintiffs had bought their tickets, Brimmer declined to consider it.
Weiser's review of consumer complaints last year reflected many of the allegations made in the lawsuit, with the attorney general's office also noting reports of consumers being hampered by Frontier's unclear policies as they attempted to redeem their credits. Passengers also allegedly received inconsistent information from customer service representatives.
"Unlike other airlines, or other companies, Frontier has failed to treat consumers fairly or honestly — and took advantage of them during a public health emergency," Weiser wrote in his letter to the transportation department.