Edwards v. Southwest Airlines: Ticketing and Boarding Are Preempted “Services”

Last year, the Sixth Circuit made a clarifying decision in Edwards v. Southwest Airlines Co. regarding the context of state law claims related to airline services preempted under the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA). The ADA was enacted in 1978 to reduce government regulations on the airline industry. The integration of the ADA into U.S. law was a historic moment, known as the first instance of industry deregulation. The preemption provision incorporated in the act ensures that states do not create additional regulations in an industry that is federally deregulated. The act provides that states “may not enact or enforce a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier that may provide air transportation under this subpart.” 49 U.S.C.S. § 41713 (b) (1) (LexisNexis 2021).

In Edwards, the plaintiff Ahmed Edwards brought suit against Southwest Airlines, alleging intentional interference with a parent-child relationship, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress stemming from Southwest allowing Edwards’ child to board its plane without parental supervision. The Southern District of Ohio held that the ADA preempted Edwards’ claims.

Notably, in reaching its decision, the court relied on Litchfield and In re Air Disaster, cases where the courts found that the respective state law claims were not preempted under the ADA. Despite the different outcomes, both decisions outlined the context in which a claim is specifically related to “service” under the ADA. In Litchfield, the Sixth Circuit held that “those actions resulting from services provided by individual airline employees directly to passengers, such as ticketing, boarding… are related to the airline’s services.” The Edwards court thus applied this reasoning to support its conclusion ticketing and boarding related directly to the services of Southwest Airlines. Consequently, under the ADA, Edwards’ state law claims were preempted.

The holding in Edwards is an important progression for the aviation industry. The decision articulates and applies a definition for the term “service” under the ADA for the first time in the Sixth Circuit, resulting in the clarification of a previously ambiguous term, and affirming that ticketing and boarding are services that fall under ADA preemption. Not only is the aviation industry granted additional protection through this decision by preventing regulation in their deregulated sector, the decision also provides further guidance for bringing a preemption defense regarding services, allowing airlines to efficiently improve litigation strategies.

Julia Tierney also contributed to this blog