If you are a frequent flier, the moral of this legal spat is pretty simple: If you want to continue to enjoy the benefits of accumulating bonus miles, seating upgrades and other perks, don't complain too much about lost baggage, delayed flights and overbooked planes.
That is how Minnesota Rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg, a once-valued Northwest Airlines Platinum Elite member, found himself given the bum's rush from the club and into the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month. Ginsberg accused Northwest of a bad faith breach of contract. Northwest argues it simply rid itself of a serial, opportunistic whiner. Now the nine justices must navigate their way through the opaque vagaries of frequent flier programs. This may be a bumpy legal ride.
As a lecturer, Ginsberg found himself traveling at least 75 times a year, almost exclusively on Northwest. But after the rabbi contacted the airline 24 times over a seven-month period to register various complaints, Northwest dropped him from the frequent flier program, his accumulated 78,500 bonus miles were voided, and he was prevented from ever rejoining the program.
As obvious as Ginsberg's claim seems that he is being punished for speaking up, he may be on shaky legal ground. The 1978 federal Airline Deregulation Act greatly limits the types of lawsuits passengers may bring. At issue for the high court is whether Northwest's frequent flier offering is simply a discounted price program or a contract to be honored between the carrier and a customer.
No matter how the Supreme Court rules, finicky passengers need to be aware that their status as frequent fliers can be put at risk by an annoyed airline official's whim and a glare.