Frequent Flyer

Judge Sides with Delta in Latest Frequent-Flyer Suit

The airlines are rarely held legally accountable by the courts. Maybe consumers are filing lawsuits for the wrong reasons?

“Sue the bums.”

That’s a sentiment that many frequent flyers have harbored toward their mileage programs and the airlines that operate them. In the end, most just suffer whatever the latest indignity happens to be, recalibrate their expectations, and move on.

But some travelers do take the airlines to court, testing the limits of consumers’ rights against those of the airlines.

United, for example, was recently taken to task for awarding fewer frequent flyer miles than were actually flown by the plaintiff. The case turned on the definition of “flight miles.” The judge in that case, Han v. United Continental Holdings, Inc., ruled in United’s favor, declaring that United’s use of standardized flight distances was fair and reasonable.

Earlier this month, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia considered a similar suit against Delta. The plaintiff, Wynette Kwok, alleged that Delta’s SkyMiles terms and conditions committed Delta to awarding miles according to the actual distance flown, whereas in practice Delta only awarded the point-to-point miles.

For example, Kwok flew roundtrip between Los Angeles and New York, and earned 2,475 miles each way, the published point-to-point distances, in spite of the fact that she’d actually flown 2,651 miles one way, and 2,802 miles on the return.

As with the United case, the judge dismissed the suit. U.S. District Judge Thomas W. Thrash found no ambiguity in Delta’s definition of “distance” as it pertains to awarding miles. “This does not refer to the distance flown or the distance of the route taken. It refers to the distance between two points. This distance is fixed and would not waver based on any particular flight path.” And even if there were ambiguity in Delta’s formulation, Delta’s interpretation “controls.” In other words, the benefit of any doubt goes to Delta.

Such legal skirmishes are entertaining, if not particularly meaningful or enlightening. A more productive avenue for the litigiously inclined might be to challenge the airlines’ contention — embedded in the terms and conditions of virtually all major mileage programs—that consumers do not own the miles they’ve earned. American’s verbiage is typical: “Accrued mileage credit and award tickets do not constitute property of the member.” That strikes many program members as flagrantly unfair. Is it legal?

Or how about the industry-standard verbiage that reserves for the airlines the absolute right to do whatever they want, whenever they want? Quoting once more from American’s terms and conditions: “American Airlines may, in its discretion, change the AAdvantage program rules, regulations, travel awards and special offers at any time with or without notice.” Again, such a patently unfair policy fairly cries out to be tested in court.

Reader Reality Check

Which of the airlines’ policies would you like to see challenged in court?

This article originally appeared on

By Tim Winship

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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