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Airline Antitrust Suit on Fast Track

By Jerry Chandler

www.travelagewest.com/newsarticle.asp?articleid=471

A key plaintiff's attorney, in an action alleging nine major airlines conspired to cut commissions, said the lawsuit is still on track - this despite a counterclaim by one of the carriers.

San Francisco attorney Al Anolik, general counsel for ARTA, said he expects a suit filed by Sarah Hall, owner of Travel Specialists in Wilmington, N.C., to go to trial within a year.

The suit stems from actions by the airlines to cut commissions to 5% beginning in October 1999, a move Anolik contends has cost travel agents some $3 billion.

He said the suit is aiming for monetary damages in the range of $9 billion.

"In an antitrust case, if we can allege price-fixing and prove it," treble damages would be forthcoming, Anolik said.

Complicating the matter is a counterclaim by Delta Air Lines, one of the carriers named in the action, contending travel agents owed Delta $14.7 million in debit memos.

"If you go through the books, most airlines are going to say agents owe debit memos," Anolik said.

Instead of first suing, the attorney said, Delta "should have gone to the travel agent arbiter. They didn't. They're not even properly in court."

A Delta spokesman declined to talk about the matter, nor would an attorney for Sarah Hall, the plaintiff in the original action alleging carrier conspiracy to cut commissions.

Delta's counterclaim is conditional on the lawsuit against the carriers being approved by Federal District court as a class action.

Anolik called Delta's legal action "a shot across the bow ... It's to intimidate agents. But their attempt to scare people away isn't going to work."

'The Best Defense ...'

Anolik speculated that Delta's filing of a counterclaim is based on the theory "that the best defense is a good offense."

Rather than intimidate travel agents, however, the ARTA attorney said the move will "inflame a jury. When a jury sees that [Delta] is going to try to charge some small agent who's getting a $20 commission on a $2,000 ticket, they're going to kill them on it."

That, of course, remains to be seen, as does the issue of whether the case will ever reach a jury.

Anolik, however, remains confident the case is progressing rapidly.

How soon might the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina begin to adjudicate the whole matter?

"It's amazing," Anolik said, "nobody who does antitrust has seen [such a case] move this fast." "This local judge has said, 'We're going to court.'"

In February, the court denied the airlines' request that the case be dismissed, a decision that appears to have bolstered plaintiffs' confidence.

Anolik indicated this lawsuit alleging air carrier conspiracy to cut commissions could end up surprising lots of people.

"It's such a sleeper," he said. "It's moving ahead in little North Carolina. And it's going to have significance around the world."