Million Miler Files Lawsuit Against United Airlines

Did United Airlines remove some of the benefits it promised to bestow upon members who earned and achieved million miler status in the MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program, thereby breaching its contract with them?

George Lagen of Chicago thinks so — and, as a result, has filed a lawsuit in the Eastern Division of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois this past week. The question is: does Lagen have a case?

Did the statement reportedly said by John Rainey, executive vice president and chief financial officer of United Airlines, during his presentation at the Bank of America Transportation Conference on May 17, 2012 about certain groups being overly entitled “add fuel to the fire” and help to prompt this lawsuit?

Lagen claims to have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars while achieving million miler status to earn Premier Executive elite status in the MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program for life, in turn rewarding him with benefits such as early boarding privileges, upgrades and bonus MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program miles credited to his account.

However, under the new MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program, members with million miler status have dropped to Premier Gold elite status, resulting in significantly reduced benefits — including fewer upgrades and bonus miles, for example — when compared to the perks offered before the change in policy for lifetime million miler status members.

While United Airlines officially responded that the lawsuit is without merit, FlyerTalk members are currently engaged in a debate.

With regards to all aspects of the MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program — which one would assume includes million miler status — United Airlines disclaims the following:

MileagePlus membership and benefits, including the Premier Program, are offered at the discretion of United Airlines and its affiliates, and United has the right to terminate the Program and/or the Premier Program or to change the Program Rules, regulations, benefits, conditions of participation or mileage levels, in whole or in part, at any time, with or without notice, even though changes may affect the value of the mileage or certificates already accumulated.

United may, among other things, withdraw, limit, modify or cancel any award; increase the mileage, cash required, applicable co-pays or number of certificates required for any award; modify or regulate the transferability of awards or benefits; add an unlimited number of blackout dates; or limit the number of award seats available to any or all destinations. Members, in accumulating mileage or certificates, may not rely upon the continued availability of an award or award level, and members may not be able to obtain all offered awards or use awards to all destinations or on all flights.

That language in and of itself seems to suggest that claims such as the one filed by Lagen would result in having no case in court. Does this mean “case closed” before the lawsuit is even heard?

Regardless, the disclaimer above would suggest that perhaps it is not worth the time and effort voluntarily encumbered unto those who decide to purposely pursue million miler status — or any other types of elite status, for that matter. Does this mean that we should not trust airlines who tout the benefits of achieving status in their frequent flier loyalty programs as long as they have this disclaimer to protect them in the event that they want to change any aspects of the programs — such as what could be considered taking unfair advantage of the benefits offered in an egregious manner, as in this recent example — or is the above disclaimer simply “legalese” in the attempt to justify changes that might otherwise be warranted as unfair or unnecessary? Are airlines permitted to implement changes as they please, even if they might be without fair warning? Is million miler status simply for those who would have earned it anyway without even trying, rather than for those who spend an abundance of time, money and effort in achieving it so that they may enjoy the benefits that are offered for the rest of their lives?

Notwithstanding the debate — which includes the validity of the arguments included in the filing, which seem to be poorly researched and not very well written — the basic premise for me is that if an entity promises benefits to be included as the result of achieving status or a milestone, they should be honored.

I am not privy to the finances and operations of running an airline, nor will I ever claim to be an airline expert, but it seems to me that million miler members are the exception rather than the rule — especially after contributing significantly more to the revenue of an airline than many other passengers. If million miler members earned published benefits before they are changed, then they generally should be entitled to them for the remainder of their lives, regardless of future changes implemented by the airlines.

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