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In Giant Class-Action Suit, How To Tell The Plaintiffs?

October 22, 1991

ATLANTA (AP) _ Attorneys in a giant lawsuit accusing major airlines of price fixing argued Tuesday over a sticking point - how to get word to millions of travelers who might have a claim.

U.S. District Judge Marvin H. Shoob was presented with two plans. The lawyers bringing the suit hope to use media advertising, while the airlines want mail notification where possible - at greater expense to the other side.

The lawsuit, initially filed by about 50 travelers, accused nine major airlines of using their computerized reservations system to monitor fares and fix prices. In September, Shoob granted the case class-action status, meaning it could include almost anyone who bought a ticket to any of 23 hub cities over the past three years.

Before the case can proceed, those would-be plaintiffs must be contacted and told what to do to participate. The airlines estimate that could be 50 million people.

Lawyers for the original 50 travelers propose a media campaign to reach airline customers through ads in 150 local newspapers - plus USA Today and The Wall Street Journal - as well as magazines, TV and radio.

The airlines, contending that many of the ticket purchasers can be found by matching airline records with credit-card bills, want as many as possible notified officially by mail.

″The notice we have proposed will reach 143 million people at a cost of $1.7 million,″ said Judah Labovitz, attorney for the travelers. ″The mailing proposed by the defendants will cost $3.5 million to reach nine million.″

″Those you can identify, you must give individual notice,″ responded Peter Isakoff, attorney for American Airlines, the nation’s largest carrier.

The airlines ″have a very direct interest in the adequacy of the notice,″ he said. ″We could win but be sued again″ by people who weren’t reached the first time, he said.

Shoob, suggesting the airlines were trying to put the other side to as much expense as possible, noted they had at first contended there was no way to identify actual ticket purchasers, as opposed to passengers.

″Now, you take the position that through other efforts, they can be identified,″ Shoob said.

Isakoff said the information, from credit bureaus and other sources, that would enable purchasers to be found has ″evolved″ in recent weeks.

Shoob is expected to rule soon on the question of notifying travelers. No trial date has been set.

Defendants in the case include American, Continental, Delta, Midway, Pan American, United, USAir and Airline Tariff Publishing, a computerized fare information clearinghouse.

Two other airlines named in the suit, TWA and Northwest Airlines, have filed settlements in the case, saying they would not admit any wrongdoing but wanted to avoid the expense of a trial. Northwest is offering $5 million in cash and millions of dollars worth of coupons good for future travel, while TWA is offering $1 million in cash and millions in coupons.

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