S.F. Attorney: ATTAC Can Be Won

Lawyer urges agents to sue the airlines individually, not as members of a class action

By: Jerry Chandler

Despite the fact they are still short of raising the $1 million required to retain a high-profile San Francisco attorney, an ad hoc group of travel agents intends to press its attack against the major airlines for alleged antitrust activities.

“We do not have $1 million yet,” said Jan-Marie Brown, coordinator for a group called ATTAC (Antitrust Travel Agent Compensation). Brown, owner of Happy Travel in Carson City, Nev., declined to specify how much the group has raised, saying simply, “We have a lot of money.”

San Francisco attorney Joseph Alioto is most likely the man who will bear ATTAC’s banner should the case proceed. He’s already advising the group, although a suit has yet to be filed.

ATTAC’s proposed action against the airlines is similar to others filed in North Carolina and Los Angeles in its intent: to force the carriers to compensate travel agents for commissions lost in recent years. It differs from the other lawsuits in its mechanics. Unlike the North Carolina case, and, perhaps, the Los Angeles action, ATTAC’s effort is not a class-action suit. Instead, it aims to aggregate agencies willing to put their money where their hearts are.

“Financial commitment from travel agents helps ensure work commitment,” Brown said.

Agencies with ARC sales of less than $5 million in 2001 are required to ante up $1,200. Larger agencies must contribute more.

“This is not a case where we can all just sit back and say, ‘Ah, we’re just going to let somebody else do all the work for us,’” Brown said. Not only are ATTAC agents responsible for the retainer, they’re “individually responsible for gathering our documents [so we] can provide Mr. Alioto’s law office with everything he needs to win this case.”

Alioto contended that the case is eminently winnable.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I think what has happened is an absolute outrage.

The United States Department of Justice ... has been slack in its duties and responsibilities to the people. So has the Federal Trade Commission. That the government is doing nothing about it is atrocious.”

Alioto is talking to travel agents across the country, trying to convince them ATTAC’s approach is best.

“What I have told them is I believe that the way they can properly pursue the damages that have been caused by them is by individually suing the airlines not as members of a class action,” he said.

ATTAC’s prospective attorney said the damages sustained by the tens of thousands of travel agents represented in the class actions cannot be shown or recovered. He’s telling agents that if they hope to recover the real damages, they should proceed as individual plaintiffs.

“To do that, they would have to pay a substantial amount of money for the retainer to get the case going,” he said.

Brown said ATTAC has financial commitments from less than a few hundred agencies, but 700 to 800 agencies intend to join ATTAC’s efforts.

“Right now, we’re calling in the markers. If you say you want to be part of this, now’s the time,” she said.

Despite ATTAC’s advocacy of its own position, Brown said: “We most definitely do not want anybody to opt out of the class-action lawsuit in North Carolina unless they are a committed plaintiff in the ATTAC suit.”

Brown said the core philosophy of her organization is to attack.

“Get yourself behind one of these cases,” she said. “If you’re not going to be a plaintiff in the ATTAC suit, then get yourself behind the Sarah Hall suit. Learn about it, support it. Do what you can to further the cause.”