Trust: Does It Really Matter How a Court Rules For United Airlines Million Milers?

 “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something” is the definition of the word trust, according to the Oxford dictionary of American English.

United’s somewhat pyrrhic court victory” and “Court Says MileagePlus is Fraudulent” are two headlines posted respectively by Seth Miller of Wandering Aramean and Gary Leff of View From The Wing — causing some readers to take exception in various degrees to the way those headlines were worded — pertaining to the latest in a case of where United Airlines was sued by a million miler member of the MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program for supposedly removing 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.

Do the wording of those headlines really matter? Perhaps if you are an attorney or a member of the legal profession, I suppose it does…

…but to me, those headlines and the way they are worded are not particularly relevant to me. What matters to me is the basic concept of trust — but I will get to that in a moment. First, let us go back in time…

Earlier this year, I posted this article where George Lagen — the plaintiff who is a million miler member of the United Airlines MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program — was denied a motion for summary judgment after United States District Judge Harry Leinenweber ruled that Lagen “has not produced any evidence that United made him (and other putative class members) an offer to participate in a separate MillionMile Flyer program that was separate and apart from the MileagePlus program.”

“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away”, Leinenweber reportedly said as he quoted Job from the Bible at the start of when he issued his decision on Thursday, January 23, 2014 to dismiss a lawsuit which claimed that United Airlines removed 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.

To add insult to injury, the judgment also demanded that Lagen pay the costs incurred by United Airlines.

Lagen first filed his lawsuit back in May of 2012 in the Eastern Division of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, claiming that United Airlines removed 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.

In January of 2013, Leinenweber refused the request of United Continental Holdings Incorporated — the parent company of United Airlines, which cited that the litigant had no legal standing on which to sue based upon its right to modify the MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program at any time — to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that the contract United Airlines had with Million Miler members supposedly differed from the contract with other members of the MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program, which includes the following disclaimer:

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.

I am not a lawyer, but if United Airlines is allowed to change its policies pertaining to lifetime benefits after a contract has been reached, that would potentially send strong reverberations and repercussions throughout the frequent travel loyalty program industry. I know that if I put in a significant amount of money, time and effort into achieving lifetime elite level status with an entity, only to have even one of the benefits since rescinded, my trust in that entity would be greatly reduced — if not eliminated altogether — regardless of the law…

…and does it really matter whether I am a business traveler who would have flown all of that time as a passenger or a leisure traveler who purposely attempted to achieve lifetime elite level status?

At one time years ago, you could achieve lifetime elite level status on Continental Airlines if you attained top elite level status for five consecutive years — a relative bargain in the current environment of frequent flier loyalty programs. United Airlines did keep that lifetime elite level status intact — for the most part — after its merger with Continental Airlines. Could United Airlines have merely discontinued it with no liability? Perhaps — but as I already stated, I am not a lawyer.

A contract is basically a voluntary agreement between two or more parties, consisting of an offer and acceptance with mutual consideration. United Airlines offered lifetime Million Miler elite level status with certain benefits which attracted litigant George Lagen and compelled him with the incentive to earn that lifetime elite level status fairly and squarely as according to the rules and policies set forth by United Airlines. There is the offer and acceptance, but what is the consideration? United Airlines receives enough business from Lagen for him to become a Million Miler; Lagen receives elite level status and its benefits for a lifetime. Case closed, right?

United Airlines then reportedly reduced some of the benefits of having elite status for a lifetime. What if those benefits were important enough for Lagen that had he known that he would not have had them for a lifetime after all, he may not have invested the money, time and effort to earn them in the first place?

In my opinion, Lagen followed all of the rules and is therefore entitled to the benefits for a lifetime as promised to him by United Airlines. I agree with the federal judge that the aforementioned disclaimer makes more sense in applying to other aspects of the MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program members and not necessarily for Million Miler members. For example, if I invested the time, money and effort to earn and attain elite status — for which one needs to qualify every year — only to have changes implemented at the discretion of United Airlines, I have the choice of simply not qualifying for elite status for the next year, as it may no longer be worth my while.

Imagine spending ten years to achieve Million Miler elite level status for a lifetime. What if some of the benefits were rescinded within a year of achieving it? Is that fair? Would it be fair even if they were rescinded ten years after achieving elite status for a lifetime? What does the word “lifetime” really mean, anyway?

At Delta Air Lines, members of the SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program who achieve Million Miler status receive “complimentary annual” elite level status rather than “lifetime” elite level status. Could the reason be that if Delta Air Lines decides to eliminate — or add, to be fair — benefits to that elite level status that it is not liable and subject to potential costly lawsuits?

More importantly, how does this affect your trust in frequent flier loyalty programs — and how important is trust to you?

I wrote here that I would advise to those who administer frequent travel loyalty programs — the term perhaps a misnomer in and of itself — that they clearly know and understand the differences between loyalty and trust with regard to their members, as it could mean the difference between retaining and losing a customer.

Back in February of 2014, a poll was posted on FlyerTalk which asked how important trust was to members of frequent flier loyalty programs. Almost 69 percent of the 232 FlyerTalk members who participated in a poll voted that trust in a frequent travel loyalty program is overwhelmingly very important; while an additional 17.67 percent of FlyerTalk members believe that trust in a frequent travel loyalty program is somewhat important. You can view the final results of that poll in this article I posted on Friday, March 7, 2014.

It is one thing to have a customer avoid patronizing your business whenever possible — but when that customer is a lifetime member of a frequent flier loyalty program and avoids the airlines which participate in it whenever possible, that to me speaks volumes about trust…

…but does trust work both ways? Do those people who “play” the frequent travel loyalty programs to their fullest benefit possible — sometimes taking what could be considered unfair advantage of them in ways which may be perceived as deceitful — contribute to the policies being implemented from some frequent travel loyalty programs which may be perceived as unfriendly to members?

In my opinion, it does not matter what a court rules in the case of United Airlines removing 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. Companies need to be careful about what is promised to their customers; for if they break that promise — even if a court rules in their favor — it could damage the trust their customers have in them, which could potentially translate into a loss of revenue.

I know I would have a difficult time being able to trust any person or entity who willfully reneged on what was promised to me…

…so now it is your turn: what are your thoughts? Regardless of what a court rules, would the changing of the terms of what you earned as a million miler member which were not in your favor affect your trust in the company which operated the frequent flier loyalty program? Is trust all that important to you in the first place?

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