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Suing Northwest Airlines
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The lawsuit that paid off

On August 23, I filed suit against Northwest Airlines for $2,000 in Hennepin County Conciliation Court (Minnesota's term for "small-claims court") at a cost of $30. My complaint on the summons stated:

"The airline failed to honor my family's seat reservations on an international flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Amsterdam and Venice by closing the flight early and forcing us to take another flight through Newark the next day. The airline violated the terms of its own passenger contract, failed to notify us of our rights per DOT regulations, and failed to pay a $400 penalty (5 tickets = $2,000) as required by law."

Trial was set for September 15.

On the appointed day, a paralegal for Northwest Airlines showed up in court. Before the case was heard by the referee (judge), we were required to meet with a mediator in an adjacent conference room.

The paralegal asserted that we'd checked in after the 60-minute deadline. As evidence, she submitted a sheet of paper that she claimed was an actual record of our check-in. The sheet consisted primarily of computer codes but included our names and a statement that we'd checked in at 10:00 p.m. for a 10:45 flight and would need to be rerouted to Amsterdam the next day.

I said that the statement was false, and that I had two witnesses (my wife and 13-year-old son, both in the room) who could testify that we had checked in before the deadline. Under polite questioning from the mediator, the paralegal insisted that the document (1) was written by the agent who had checked us in, and (2) was a real-time record of the check-in procedure.

Then it hit me: "the Perry Mason moment," as I later described it to my wife. I turned to the paralegal and said:

"Wait a minute! This couldn't have been written by the gate agent. It says we'd need rerouting to Amsterdam the next day. The agent who checked us in thought we were on the flight. He'd taken our baggage and sent us off to the gate."

At that point, the paralegal's defense collapsed. She said rather stiffly that Northwest would agree to a settlement of $1,483 to cover compensation for the affected leg(s) of our trip. Rather than accept, I suggested that Northwest might want to consider giving us a larger amount in travel vouchers. 

"After all," I pointed out, "travel vouchers wouldn't be cash out of pocket for Northwest." In the end, the paralegal agreed to $3,000 in travel vouchers. Combined with the $750 in unacknowledged travel vouchers we'd already received, we ended up with $3,750 in free airline travel for missing our plane.

Who won? We did--but so did the airline. On the day we flew through Newark, Northwest was offering $1,100 in travel vouchers to passengers who gave up their seats on the overbooked flight. In contrast, our $3,750 (or $750 each) was a bargain for Northwest.

Lessons to be learned

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