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Are Your Frequent Flier Miles Safe?

Don’t count on it. 

Don’t count on it.

Listen to the sobering tale of Binyomin Ginsberg, an itinerant rabbi from Minnesota. Rabbi Ginsberg was a frequent traveller on the old Northwest Airlines (now part of Delta) and amassed enough miles to reach super elite status in the WorldPerks program. But his huge bank of miles disappeared one fateful day in 2008 when Northwest decided they had had enough of him.

Why, in Northwest’s estimation, did Rabbi Ginsburg deserve to be thrown out of its frequent flier program, never to redeem his miles?

In a word, he had become intolerably annoying.

Rabbi Ginsberg lobbed quite a few complaints at the carrier. He complained when his bags were late, or lost. He complained when his flights were delayed, or when he was stuck on the tarmac too long. He demanded compensation for these inconveniences. And he booked himself on full flights in hopes of getting bumped and reaping the benefits. After being showered with 78,000 bonus miles, $2000 in vouchers and nearly $500 cash in 2007 alone, Rabbi Ginsberg pushed things too far. Here is Nina Totenberg’s reporting on NPR:

Ginsberg says that the agent told him he was “no longer a member of our frequent-flier program,” that his miles had been confiscated, and that he would “never be able to join the program again.”

Ginsberg says he thought it was a joke at first. But when he realized it wasn’t, he asked for an explanation. “And they said, ‘Because you complained too much about our service,’ ” he says.

When he called the legal department to follow up, he says he was told that under federal law the airline has “total discretion” in such matters.

“I said, ‘You know what, you’re forcing me to take legal action,’ ” Ginsberg says, “and she started laughing, literally,” telling him, “‘You know, you’re not the first person who has threatened that, and we don’t get scared of that.’ “

In a modern-day Hanukkah miracle, the rabbi’s beef with Northwest ascended all the way to the United States Supreme Court. You can read about the legal issue and the texture of this week’s hearing in my post at The Economist. The upshot is this: Rabbi Ginsberg is unlikely to win. His miles are probably history. And if the justices decide the case the way they seem to be leaning next June, any other airline would be within its rights to kick him out of their program too.

What does this mean for your miles? Don’t think of them as money in the bank. They a lot more like coupons that expire whenever the airline wants them to. The 1978 Airline Deregulation Act permits airlines to charge you what they like and allows them expel you from their clubs at their discretion. They can change the terms of the awardsby requiring more miles for a free flight, say, or by limiting the number of seats available for award travelhowever they choose.

So start using those miles before it’s too late, and think twice before picking up the phone to complain to customer service agents about a flight gone awry. You might walk away really empty-handed.   


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