ATLANTA (Reuters) - Delta Air Lines and AirTran Airways lost their bid to dismiss a class-action lawsuit charging that they colluded to set a baggage fee as a federal judge in Atlanta ruled the carriers can be sued.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten, in an August 2 ruling, dismissed plaintiffs’ claims that Delta, the current airline industry leader, and AirTran engaged in “attempted monopolization” but said a claim alleging conspiracy should proceed.
The case dates back to 2009, when Delta and AirTran were sued by customers charging the airlines colluded to charge passengers for a first checked bag. The suit alleged that AirTran’s chief executive invited Delta to initiate a baggage fee during an April 2008 earnings conference call by indicating that AirTran would follow with its own charge.
In February 2010, plaintiffs filed an amended class action lawsuit in the case in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. Delta and AirTran had filed motions to dismiss the claims in March 2010.
“Because the allegations in Plaintiffs’ complaint contain sufficient factual specificity to establish an unlawful conspiracy, dismissal would be improper,” Judge Batten said in ruling on the conspiracy claim in the 46-page decision this week.
The two carriers are rivals in the Atlanta market, and Batten’s ruling noted that Delta “has consistently matched” AirTran’s low prices, including on routes to and from the city’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Batten added however, that the plaintiffs’ complaint had its weaknesses.
He said a Delta explanation that it imposed a first-bag fee because merger partner Northwest Airlines already had one was a “potentially legitimate and lawful” justification. Delta acquired Northwest in October 2008.
“We will not comment on the litigation other than to say it is notable that the decision recognizes that the harmonization of Delta and Northwest policies, as a result of the merger, would be a valid business justification for Delta’s actions in adjusting its baggage fees,” Delta spokesman Susan Elliott said in an emailed statement.
“We are very pleased with the judge’s decision to dismiss the monopoly parts of the case, and we are confident that we’ll prevail on the remaining parts,” AirTran spokesman Christopher White said on Tuesday.
AirTran currently charges $15 for a first checked bag, while Delta charges $23 to $25 for a first bag, depending on whether it is checked online or at the airport.
The case is In Re Delta/AirTran Baggage Fee Antitrust Litigation, Civil Action File No. 1:09-md-2089-TCB, US District Court, Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta division.
Reporting by Karen Jacobs; Editing by Gary Hill