By Ken Hegan for MSN Travel

Beers are on them!

A Chicago judge has declared that Southwest Airlines must buy up to 5.8 million beers for its passengers. The settlement could be worth $29 million USD.

SouthwestIn October 2007, Southwest (the USA’s biggest low-cost airline) started giving free alcohol vouchers to customers who’d purchased premium-priced “Business Select” flight tickets. Each voucher was worth $5 in booze bucks…and most importantly, the vouchers didn’t have expiry dates. Strangely enough (to me, at least) many passengers hung onto their vouchers instead of cashing ’em in for brews.

Then, on August 1, 2010, the airline stopped honoring these vouchers. According to a Chicago Tribune story, Southwest’s new policy said that “Business Select passengers may use their vouchers only on the day of travel printed on them, essentially voiding all previously issued vouchers.”

Cheap move!

Southwest passenger (and lawyer) Adam Levitt was outraged. So in November 2011, he filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of himself and all Southwest passengers who’d ever received a booze buck voucher. His argument: Southwest’s policy switch was a “breach of contract.” Basically he accused them of pulling the ole ‘Now You Sip It, Now You Don’t’ Bait and Switch.

A federal judge agreed, so Southwest’s eligible fliers are now entitled to new drink vouchers for every voucher they earned but didn’t redeem…even if they can’t find the original paper vouchers. Christmas has come early in America!

Lesson learned: never get between a lawyer and his liquor.

Chicago attorney Joseph Siprut, who represented the class against Southwest, said that beer-thirsty passengers “just have to submit a form saying they had a certain number of vouchers that were never redeemed, and they can get replacement vouchers in equal number.”

The settlement estimates that 5.8 million eligible vouchers were not redeemed. At $5 a voucher, that’s $29 million. This time, however, the new vouchers will come with an expiry date; they’re good for one (1) year only.

So check your in-box, travellers. Southwest will soon inform all their eligible customers that beers are on the house.

But be careful when you cash in that voucher. The first few ‘FREE BEER FLIGHTS’ should get pretty rowdy.

— Ken Hegan

BING: Lawsuits filed against airlines

Read more of Ken’s MSN travel stories here  

Follow Ken on Twitter: @KenHegan

Photo of Southwest plane: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast