Frequent flier sues over his lost air miles

Rabbi dumped from Northwest programme after complaining takes case to Supreme Court

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 December, 2013, 9:25pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 December, 2013, 5:16am


Rabbi Binyomin Ginsberg admits to being a frequent flier and a frequent complainer. He flew on Northwest Airlines about 75 times a year, domestically and internationally, earning enough airmiles to qualify for "Platinum Elite" status.

But he also complained a lot - about two dozen times in seven months, the airline says - demanding compensation for delays, lost bags and losing seats on overbooked flights that Northwest said he reserved "with the purpose of being bumped".

After Northwest terminated Ginsberg's platinum status for "abusing" its frequent-flier programme, the rabbi sued. "I had hundreds of thousands of miles, and I wanted them back," he said, standing on the steps of the US Supreme Court on Tuesday, where his case was heard.

But based on justices' questions and comments, the court appeared reluctant to grant US travellers any expanded rights to sue airlines, pointing to a 1978 deregulation law that airlines use to shield themselves against lawsuits from customers over routes, rates and services.

The "whole point" of the deregulation act was to protect airlines from state lawsuits, said Chief Justice John Roberts. "We're dealing with airlines that go to a lot of different states."

Ginsberg's lawyer insisted that Northwest, which merged with Delta Airlines in 2010, broke its contractual promise. But justices noted that the fine print of the frequent-flier programme said a decision to cancel a member's account was left to the airline's "sole judgment".

At the heart of Northwest vs Ginsberg is how to balance consumer protections for travellers with the US Airline Deregulation Act, which Congress passed to insulate airlines from burdensome state lawsuits in an effort to increase competition and lower fares. That law has often frustrated airline customers, who find few legal options to challenge carriers in court over lost luggage or cancelled flights.

Ginsberg had sued in California, and a San Diego federal judge dismissed his claim before a trial, citing the deregulation act. But last year, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals revived it and said the rabbi could sue the airline for violating the general duty to act in "good faith" and engage in "fair dealing".

A lawyer for consumer watchdog group Public Citizen, which agreed to represent the rabbi, argued that Ginsberg was a loyal flier and that the airline should be required to honour the deal it made with him.

Courts should be able to "give effect to the bargain that the parties entered into based on their reasonable expectations", said Adina Rosenbaum, a Washington lawyer.

A decision is not expected for several months.