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Williams v. Trans World Airlines

decided: January 10, 1975.


Appeal from a judgment in favor of the defendant entered in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Levet, Judge, dismissing plaintiff's complaint on the ground that defendant airline's refusal to transport him was authorized by 49 U.S.C. § 1511. Affirmed.

Hays, Anderson and Mansfield, Circuit Judges.

Author: Anderson

ANDERSON, Circuit Judge:

This is an appeal from the district court's decision,*fn1 that defendant-appellee Trans World Airlines, Inc. (TWA) was well within its rights in refusing transportation by air to plaintiff-appellant Robert F. Williams (Williams) under 49 U.S.C. § 1511*fn2 and that TWA's refusal to carry Williams on a September 6, 1969 flight from London, England, to Detroit, Michigan for which he held a valid ticket, was not, under the circumstances of this case, arbitrary, or unreasonable, as Williams claims; nor did it subject him "to any unjust discrimination or any undue or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage in any respect whatsoever," as proscribed by 49 U.S.C. § 1374(b).*fn3

The trial court found the facts to be substantially as follows: Williams, a black, native-born American citizen, had lived in Monroe, North Carolina, until he left his home August 27, 1961 for New York where he learned by radio on the afternoon of the following day that he had been indicted for alleged kidnapping in North Carolina and that a warrant had issued to the FBI for his arrest. To avoid prosecution he fled to Canada early in September, 1961 and after approximately six weeks, he left for Cuba and arrived there in November, 1961. He remained in Cuba until 1966, when he moved to Communist China, where he and his family lived for approximately two years. In 1969 he decided to return to the United States and surrender to the authorities, so he made a trip to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania where he obtained from the United States Embassy a travel document or limited passport good only for a return to the United States. He and his family left China in August, 1969, for Tanzania and his family flew from there to Detroit, Michigan later that month. Their arrival in Detroit was accompanied by a large demonstration at the airport.

On or about September 4, 1969, Williams purchased a ticket for air passage from Dar es Salaam to London, England via United Arab Airlines, and thereafter from London by direct flight to Detroit, Michigan on TWA. The ticket was issued in the name of "R. Franklin".*fn4

Meanwhile, on August 28, 1969, Joseph E. Flaherty, Security Representative for TWA, received a telephone call from Special Agent John Sullivan of the FBI in New York who told Flaherty that Williams would be arriving at the Detroit airport on a TWA flight from London. He stated that there was a warrant outstanding for Williams' arrest, that he was a fugitive, and that there was a possibility of a demonstration when Williams arrived. The FBI therefore asked to have the aircraft parked somewhere other than at the passenger terminal or rerouted to another airport.

After receiving the call, Flaherty contacted Mr. Richard E. Newman, TWA Staff Vice-President, Audit and Security, and advised him of the FBI's request. He also told Newman that there had been a demonstration, consisting of some 300 people who went through the barrier and onto the field, four weeks earlier when Williams' wife arrived from Africa. In response to Newman's request for additional information, Flaherty sent him a copy of the FBI Wanted Bulletin describing Williams.*fn5

Newman in turn gave to the President of TWA, Forward C. Wiser, Jr., all of the information about Williams which had been received from Flaherty. TWA Vice-President and General Counsel, Raymond Fletcher, later advised Newman and another TWA Vice-President that under the Federal Aviation Act the airline could refuse passage to Williams if he "would or might be inimical to safety of flight."

The ultimate decision to refuse Williams passage was made by Wiser, as president, on September 4, 1969. His decision was based on the FBI Wanted Bulletin including the information that Williams was a fugitive from an indictment on a kidnapping charge, and the warning it contained about Williams being armed and dangerous; the possibility of a demonstration upon Williams' arrival at Detroit; and the danger of hijacking in light of those recently experienced by TWA and other airlines.*fn6 Prior to this occasion Wiser had never heard of Williams but on September 6, 1969, he was aware that Williams might be taken into custody by the British authorities.

When Williams arrived in London on September 5, 1969, between 4 and 5 p.m., he first went through Immigration and then to the United Arab Airlines booth to arrange travel to Detroit. Upon finding no one there, he went to the TWA office and spoke to someone there about a flight to Detroit. When he returned to the Immigration gate to get his baggage he was approached by British Security Police who took him to a nearby room to question and search him. He was informed that it had been reported by the FBI that he was carrying arms and ammunition, but the search revealed nothing. Subsequent searches by other British officials also revealed no arms, ammunition or explosives.

At this point Williams was told that TWA had refused him passage to Detroit, although it offered to have him flown back to Cairo on United Arab Airlines, which Williams refused; and, because he had neither a United States passport which allowed him general foreign travel nor a British visa, he was taken to Pentonville prison as an illegal immigrant, where he remained until September 12, 1969. TWA tried to make Williams an offer to transport him to Detroit if he would consent to be accompanied by a legal attache of the United States Embassy in London but the proposal failed to reach Williams in time. Williams never gave consent to an alternative offer by TWA to fly him from London to New York on the 5th.

On September 11, 1969 TWA completed arrangements with Williams' attorney in Detroit, pursuant to which the attorney was flown to London; and on September 12, 1969, he and Williams were taken by TWA on a special unscheduled non-stop flight to Detroit. Upon arrival at the airport there, two FBI agents took Williams into custody.

Williams instituted suit on January 26, 1970 against TWA alleging, inter alia, that he was unjustly and unreasonably discriminated against in violation of § 404(b) of the Federal Aviation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 1374(b), false imprisonment and breach of contract. The other allegations of his complaint were withdrawn either prior to or during the trial. The three remaining counts can only succeed in the event that TWA was not authorized under 49 U.S.C. § 1511 to refuse to carry Williams on ...

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