A US federal appeals court has revived a class action lawsuit against Florida-based Spirit Airlines that alleges the ultra-LCC deliberately misled passengers about whether carry-on items were included within the price of airfare.

The lawsuit was previously dismissed in 2018 by a federal judge, who agreed with Spirit’s argument that breach-of-contract claims are pre-empted by the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA) of 1978.

On Sept. 10, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan reversed that decision, arguing the ADA does not shelter airlines that breach their own self-imposed obligations from state-law-based adjudication of routine breach-of-contract claims.

The 22 plaintiffs allege they were refused boarding at the gate unless they paid previously undisclosed fees for bringing a carry-on item aboard the aircraft. In some instances, these last-minute fees exceeded the amount of the airfare itself, with some passengers forced to pay over $100 for their carry-on. The plaintiffs claim they were told by airline staff to either “pay or stay,” meaning they would be denied boarding unless they agreed to pay the fees.

The plaintiffs also argued the contract’s terms were ambiguous, and a “reasonable consumer” would have believed the baggage fees were included as part of the agreed-upon price for travel. In reversing the lower court’s ruling, the appeals court agreed with that view, stating “the terms of the contract could suggest more than one meaning when viewed objectively by a reasonably intelligent person.”

“Spirit was relying on a broad state pre-emption that’s in the ADA to try and get this suit dismissed, and the plaintiffs have convinced the appeals court that the breach of contract claim does not survive an effort to dismiss under the ADA,” National Consumers League VP-public policy John Breyault said. “This is a case that will continue to be litigated again at the district court level. For consumers that have been bedeviled by the explosion of airline add-on fees for years now, this is certainly good news.”

Representatives for Spirit did not respond to a request for comment.

Ben Goldstein, ben.goldstein@aviationweek.com