On 18 December 2018 Federal Judge Silvina A Bracamonte of the Civil and Commercial Federal Court 1, Secretary 2 held in favour of Aeromexico in a case in which two passengers were considered to have been disruptive and were ordered to disembark the aircraft (Maciel v Aeromexico).
The plaintiffs, Maciel and Bigatti, filed a complaint in the Federal Court claiming that they had bought tickets from Aeromexico for a trip to New York for their honeymoon and had reserved seats together. The passengers claimed that they had been informed five days before departure by their travel agent that their schedule had been changed and, as a result, they would arrive eight hours later than originally scheduled.
According to the plaintiffs, they had arrived at the airport with enough time to check in, but many passengers claimed that because of the change of schedule, the check-in and immigration process had been delayed.
Once the plaintiffs boarded the plane, they discovered that their seats were in different locations. They called a crew member and insisted that they be seated together as per their original booking. The flight attendant stated that the plane was full and she would do her best to remedy the issue. The plaintiffs were offered two seats separated by the aisle, but refused them as there would have been a minor seated next to them. Subsequently, Maciel and Bigatti reacted angrily, blamed the crew and made it clear that they would not fly if seated separately.
A flight attendant informed the captain of the situation and he decided that Maciel and Bigatti had to disembark the aircraft. They refused and, as a result, the airport police were called to force them to disembark.
Maciel and Bigatti claimed the following damages in Argentine pesos under the Consumer Protection Law and the Civil Code:
- Ps110,000 (approximately $2,400) for moral damages;
- Ps75,000 (approximately $1,700) for psychological damages;
- Ps25,000 (approximately $560) for psychological treatment;
- Ps30,000 (approximately $670) in punitive damages; and
- Ps10,844.96 (approximately $240 ) for expenses incurred.(1)
Aeromexico informed the plaintiffs that they could travel the next day on the same tickets and they accepted, but the plaintiffs asked to return to Buenos Aires two days later and Aeromexico granted their request.
Aeromexico's response to the plaintiffs' complaint indicated that:
- the travel agency where the claimants had purchased their tickets had been informed of the change of schedule two-and-a-half months beforehand; and
- the passengers had arrived for check-in late – they were the last passengers to check in – and by that time no adjacent seats were available.
Notably, under Article 8 of Resolution 1532/1998 (Ministry of Economy, Public Works and Public Services), airlines have no obligation to reserve specific seats for their passengers.
Further, Aeromexico claimed that the passengers had:
- insulted the crew;
- tried to sit in the same seat together;
- sat in the crew seats; and
- lost their tempers.
For security reasons, the carrier had the right to remove the plaintiffs from the aircraft, as the captain had deemed them to be disruptive, and had offered them flights the next day.
In its response, Aeromexico rejected the application of the Consumer Protection Law and argued that the Montreal Convention 1999 took precedence. The convention expressly prohibits the application of punitive damages to liability cases.
After the evidence had been provided, the judge decided as follows:
- Regarding the change of schedule, the passengers had failed to prove that they had rejected the change – rather, they had specifically agreed with it. Therefore, the passengers could not claim damages for this issue, as they should have rejected the change of schedule when they had been informed of it, which they had not done. The judge provided precedents to sustain her decision.
- Regarding the fact that the captain had considered the passengers to be disruptive, it was clear that he had the authority to take such a decision and order the passengers to disembark the aircraft due to safety concerns.
The court heard testimonies from the flight crew, who claimed that the plaintiffs had shouted at check-in staff before the flight and at the flight crew when they were informed that the captain had ordered them to disembark the aircraft. The witness declarations coincided with a report by Aeromexico detailing the passengers' booking. Moreover, the captain declared that he had been flying for 14 years and that this case had been the first time that he had ordered passengers to disembark a flight for being disruptive.
Based on Aeromexico's arguments, the court found that the captain had acted reasonably, as the claimants had posed a security concern under Article 8 of Resolution 1532/1998. The judge further explained that she was using the word 'security' in general terms. The court found that Aeromexico's conduct had not contravened the law and held against plaintiffs, ordering them to pay court and legal fees.
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