Here's what You Need to Know So Far About the Massive Domestic Airlines Antitrust Settlement

Did you receive an e-mail recently that started like this:

Dear Class Member: 
Our records show you may have purchased a domestic airline ticket from American, Delta, Southwest, United, Continental Airlines, or US Airways between July 1, 2011 and June 14, 2018.”

If you’re one of the millions who did, that’s because two major airlines have agreed to settle class-action litigation brought by passengers who allege the “Big Six” carriers—American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest, United, Continental Airlines, and US Airways—conspired with one another for nearly a decade to fraudulently increase ticket prices for domestic flights.

As of today, $60 million—$45 million from American Airlines and $15 million from Southwest—has been earmarked to put an end to litigation against the two companies. The other defendants have, for now, chosen to continue to fight the claims.

But this settlement is not as cut and dried as some of those yielded by other class action cases affecting large groups of consumers, and we still have a long way to go before any checks are mailed out. Though American and Southwest have settled, it’s important to keep in mind that the court has made no ruling with regard to the claims made against any of airline defendants.

Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know.

How did we get here?

The American Airlines and Southwest settlements come in the wake of 23 separate antitrust class actions that were consolidated in Washington in 2016. The lawsuits allege that the “Big Six” airlines, beginning in 2009 and continuing through 2018, colluded to cap the number of new seats they would add to planes in order to artificially raise domestic airfare prices even though fuel costs were dropping and ticket demand was static.

How do I know if I’m covered by the settlements?

Did you buy at least one domestic airline ticket from American Airlines, Delta, Southwest, United, Continental, or US Airways between July 1, 2011, and June 14, 2018? If so, you’re covered by these settlements. But it’s a little more granular than that:

  • Consumers who purchased airline tickets from any of the six carriers between July 1, 2011, and December 20, 2017, may be eligible for a piece of the $15 million Southwest settlement.
  • Consumers who bought at least one ticket from any of the six airlines between July 1, 2011, and June 14, 2018, may be eligible for a piece of the $45 million American Airlines settlement.

I’m still not sure if I’m covered by the settlements. What should I do?

The official settlement website suggests calling 1-866-459-3634 or emailing if you’re not sure whether you’re covered.

Let’s talk turkey. How much money am I going to get and when will I get it?

This is where it gets a little hairy. At this time, there is no distribution plan in place for class members to receive their settlement money.

The reason for this is that the litigation is still continuing against two of the defendants and it’s unclear at this point whether more money will become available. At this juncture, it’s not really possible for attorneys and the court to hash out exactly how much money will be distributed and when. A potentially significant fly in the ointment when it comes to the American Airlines and Southwest settlements is that those funds may be used to help pay for attorneys to continue to pursue litigation against the non-settling defendants. The truth of it, as the official settlement website tells it, is that because so many consumers are covered by this litigation, “it may not be economically practical to distribute money until additional settlements or judgments are achieved.”         

A hearing is set to be held on March 22, 2019, at which the court will consider whether to approve the settlements and attorneys’ fees. As that date gets closer, expect more information to come to light. The possibility still exists that the litigation could be decided in favor of the non-settling airlines who are fighting the allegations. What this means is that even if the American Airlines and Southwest settlements are given the green light, a ruling somewhere down the road in favor of the non-settling defendants who have chosen to fight the allegations could mean no more money may be made available to consumers.

So, for some time at least, the check will decidedly not be in the mail, sorry to say.

What am I supposed to do until then?

Other than taking up a relaxing hobby, the best advice we can offer is to sign up for news alerts about the claims process and potential future settlements. If you’re looking for more information, you can e-mail or call 1-866-459-3634.

Please note that signing up for news alerts is not the same thing as submitting a claim for the settlements.

Why have only American Airlines and Southwest settled so far?

As is the case for many class-action lawsuits, companies often settle because paying money to end litigation can be far more cost- and time-effective than fighting allegations all the way to a jury verdict. The case of American Airlines and Southwest is no different.

The carriers have agreed to pay $45 million and $15 million in settlements, respectively, as a way to avoid spending time and money fighting the lawsuits. It’s important to note, however, that while American and Southwest have agreed to settle, they have not admitted guilt to any collusive wrongdoing. It even says so on the official settlement website:

Southwest and American deny that they did anything wrong and have asserted defenses to Plaintiffs’ claims. They have settled to avoid the considerable cost, burden, and distraction of this litigation.”

As for the other airline defendants, there isn’t too much information available on where they’re at other than they have not agreed to settle the allegations. Delta, for instance, has taken the polar opposite approach, stating publicly that it has “not engaged in any illegal behavior and the assertion that our success is due to anything but the hard work of our people is offensive.”

What if I don’t like the settlements and want to sue these airlines on my own?

If that’s the case, then you must opt-out of the settlements. If you wish to opt-out, and therefore retain your right to sue these airlines on your own, the deadline to do so is January 4, 2019—but we recommend talking to an attorney first before you make any decision.

What happens if I do nothing?

Even if you don’t do a thing, you will remain eligible to participate in the American Airlines and Southwest settlements and will be bound by their terms. In fact, that’s about all you can do at this point until the litigation works its way further down the pipeline.

Now, to be clear, there may come a time when you’ll have to submit a claim in order to receive your piece of any settlement. But now is not that time, and, frankly, no one is quite sure yet when that time will be.