A group of consumers is suing Southwest Airlines and Boeing in a Texas court because they say the companies knew long ago about dangers to the now-grounded Boeing 737 Max aircraft and still sold tickets to passengers.
Eleven consumers from across the country filed the complaint in the U.S. District Court in Sherman against the airline and airplane manufacturer. Lawyers are pushing for class-action status to give refunds to potentially millions of customers, including those who flew on other airlines with Boeing 737 Max jets. Southwest operated the most Max aircraft, followed by American and United airlines.
"People would not have purchased tickets on an airline with planes that would kill them," said Yavar Bathaee, lead lawyer in the case. "If you look at what the companies knew and when, it's quite distressing."
The lawsuit is asking for partial or total reimbursement on tickets for customers who traveled on any Southwest plane during the time it flew Boeing 737 Max planes.
Lawyers say this suit could be expanded to consumers who bought tickets on any airline during the period because they allege both Boeing and Southwest continued to tout the safety of the aircraft when leaders knew it was unsafe. About 1 billion passengers flew in the U.S. in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Neither Chicago-based Boeing nor Dallas-headquartered Southwest Airlines returned a request for comment.
At the center of the case is the troubled Boeing 737 Max jet. Two of those jets crashed only months apart, killing 349 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia. FAA regulators grounded the fleet in March and ordered Boeing to fix a software flaw that when coupled with a bad sensor, wrenched control of the plane from pilots.
Southwest has 34 Boeing 737 Max aircraft.
According to the suit, the 11 plaintiffs bought Southwest tickets between Aug. 29, 2017, when the airline received its first Boeing 737 Max, and March 13, when the FAA grounded all of the jets.
The lawsuit claims Southwest and Boeing have a tight-knit relationship and both companies were aware before the two crashes that there were problems with the plane's auto-pilot system known as MCAS.
Southwest exclusively uses Boeing 737 jets in its fleet, which the company touts as simplifying operations and giving it efficiency edge over competitors.
Even in recent statements after the two jets crashed and regulators grounded planes, Southwest has continued to defend Boeing and the 737 Max line.
"With its entire modernization effort hinged on the transition to the MAX 8 aircraft, Southwest needed to convince the public and its customers that the aircraft was safe," the lawsuit said. "Doing so would preserve the handshake agreement and special relationship with Boeing, the value of its existing MAX 8 aircraft, and the value of its massive order for additional MAX 8 aircraft."
Boeing has pledged $200 million to the 349 victims and others impacted by the crashes. More than 400 pilots have also sued Boeing over an "unprecedented cover-up" regarding the flaws to the 737 Max line.
Bathaee said this is the first suit brought by a group of consumers in the crash. He said they didn't target companies such as American Airlines, which has 24 737 Max jets, because there wasn't as much evidence of coordination between it and Boeing.
"I think the relationship between Southwest and Boeing is unique," Bathaee said.
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