The Legality and Ethics of Terminating a Frequent Flyer Account

Random Segments writes a well-reasoned and provocative piece on the case of Rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg, the Minneapolis man who found his elite status revoked and mileage account closed after complaining too much to Northwest Airlines. Ginsberg is suing, arguing that Northwest had no right to terminate his account:

“All this individual did was complain about lousy service,” Ginsberg’s attorney, Thatcher Stone, said. “He did exactly what Delta and Northwest told him to do -- call them up and complain when service was lousy.”

Random Segments disagrees, stating,

Personally, I am glad that Northwest got rid of this customer from their elite program.  He is only an elite at complaining, and nobody deserves to constantly have to deal with a DYKWIA elite passenger.  I am sure some of his complaints are genuine, but there is a point where complaints go from being legitimate to seeking to fleece the airline.

I agree that without looking at specifics, anyone who complains 24 times within seven months and demands compensation in each instance is likely an opportunistic pest who takes much more than he gives the airline.

But does that mean his frequent flyer account should have been closed?

Northwest WorldPerks program rules may have a varied a bit before the merger with Delta, but Delta SkyMiles rules address account closure in two instances:

1.) The SkyMiles program can be terminated with six months notice

Delta reserves the right to terminate the Delta frequent flyer program with six months' notice.

2.) An individual who violates program rules (such as selling miles/upgrades or using someone else's elite status when traveling) may lose his account

Delta reserves the right to terminate your membership in the SkyMiles program at any time if you violate the SkyMiles program rules, any term or condition of Delta's contract of carriage, Delta's fare rules, or any other Delta rules and regulations that apply to your travel. Termination of your membership will result in a loss of all accumulated mileage credit in your account, the cancellation of any unused Awards or Award Certificates, and the loss of all other SkyMiles benefits. Terminated members are not eligible to participate in any aspect of the SkyMiles program, including without limitation any special promotions or SkyMiles partnership offers. In lieu of termination, Delta may at its sole discretion deduct mileage from your account, but permit you to continue participating in the SkyMiles program.

Members whose accounts have been terminated for any reason may not reopen new accounts.

It does not appear Ginsberg violated any account rules. In fact, in his final letter from Northwest Airlines the carrier again apologized for service lapses that prompted the rabbi to complain.

Binyomin Ginsberg Northwest airlines So does he have a case? Yes. Will he win? We'll talk about that below.

Frankly, I do not understand why Northwest did not just cut off the compensation or reclaim some of the miles (he had received $2,000 in travel vouchers, 78,500 bonus miles and $491 in cash reimbursements). Yes, this guy was a pest, but he was still a Platinum member who flew at least 75,000 miles per year on the carrier. Surely the travel vouchers did not cover everything unless he was a mileage runner.

There was a story on Flyertalk earlier this year about a man who complained too much at United and was assigned a specific person in Customer Relations to do deal with him. The compensation stopped and so did his complaints. Yes, that is a hassle, but an airline does not open itself up to liability when it responds as United did.

While I do not want to see the Ginsberg sweep the board and have his miles and benefits reinstated, I would like to see a court say 1.) Northwest was right to cut off the compensation but 2.) the airline overstepped its program rules, a contract that does not only govern the conduct of customers but also the airline. Ginsberg's account should be re-opened (with zero balance).

Frequent flyer programs have become more that just gimmicks--they are a multi-million dollar industry and play a huge role in driving consumer loyalty and business. To allow an airline to close accounts at will for issues that go beyond the scope of their program rules is problematic. In fact, even if Delta had a provision in their program rules stating Delta reserved the right to close frequent flyer accounts with no notice and no reason, my views on this case would not change.

Allowing any company to play essentially a bait and switch game through contracts of adhesion is not in the interest of consumers. While we run the risk of losing frequent flyer programs all together if they become too litigated, I doubt the credit card companies (who buy and sell huge quantities of miles and make such programs profitable for airlines) will allow that to happen.

But we also need to be cognizant of the fact that too much complaining may lead to negative consequences. United Airlines, for example, is still quite generous in the customer service department, even though they have scaled back their generosity over the last couple years. Right now, they throw two hundred dollar vouchers at elites for minor issues including short flight delays or special meals not being loaded. That has helped me save a lot of money on travel the last few years but l no longer complain to United, even when something goes wrong, because I am frightened that I will be blacklisted for complaining too much (in fact, I have only written one complaint e-mail to UA the last three years, but have received a lot of compensation without asking or through the onboard "skykits" that direct a user to log in online, enter the 16-digit number on the card, and select compensation).

I am not saying that you should never complain--just do not complain about minor things and keep in mind that airlines track your complaints.

Rabbi Ginsberg may not deserve a lot of sympathy, but we should not be comfortable with an airline reaping the benefits of loyalty through frequent flyer programs, then eliminating those benefits when a passenger does not break any of the program rules.


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