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Booted frequent flier takes on airline

By A. Pawlowski, CNN
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Fri September 16, 2011
Frequent flier miles can be used to purchase airline tickets and other goods and services.
Frequent flier miles can be used to purchase airline tickets and other goods and services.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • S. Binyomin Ginsberg reached Platinum Elite status in Northwest's program
  • His status was revoked in 2008; airline said he abused the program
  • Rabbi says when he pushed for clarification, carrier said he was complaining too much
  • Lower court dismissed Ginsberg's lawsuit; appeals court reversed the decision

(CNN) -- Can complaining too much get you booted from a frequent flier program?

It's one of the questions at the heart of a lawsuit filed against Northwest -- now owned by Delta Air Lines -- by S. Binyomin Ginsberg, a rabbi who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and frequently travels to lecture and teach.

Ginsberg joined Northwest's WorldPerks frequent flier program in 1999 and reached Platinum Elite status in 2005.

But in June of 2008, Ginsberg said a Northwest representative called him and told him his status was being revoked "on the ground that he had 'abused' the program," according to court papers.

Ginsberg said the airline also took away the hundreds of thousands of miles accumulated in his account.

"It didn't make sense. Initially, when they contacted me on the phone I thought it was a prank call," Ginsberg said.

"When I pushed for a reason and clarification, they told me it was because I was complaining too much."

In July 2008, Northwest sent the rabbi a letter noting that he had made 24 complaints in the past eight months, including nine incidents of his bag arriving late at the luggage carousel, according to court papers.

"You have continually asked for compensation over and above our guidelines. We have awarded you $1,925.00 in travel credit vouchers, 78,500 WorldPerks bonus miles, a voucher extension for your son, and $491.00 in cash reimbursements," the letter states, according to court papers.

"Due to our past generosity, we must respectfully advise that we will no longer be awarding you compensation each time you contact us."

Ginsberg's lawyers countered that the rabbi and his wife had been averaging about 75 flights on Northwest each year, and that Ginsberg estimated that only about 10% of the trips had resulted in a call to Northwest's customer care.

"I don't think I was a frequent complainer," Ginsberg said.

"They should have taken their time and analyzed: Were my complaints legitimate? Should they be doing something to improve their service and quality of product? Instead of worrying, we've got to shut up somebody who is complaining too much."

In November of 2008, Northwest sent Ginsberg an e-mail, in which the airline quoted a paragraph from the fine print of the WorldPerks Program.

It stated that Northwest could determine "in its sole judgment" whether a passenger has abused the program, and that abuse "may result in cancellation of the member's account and future disqualification from program participation, forfeiture of all mileage accrued and cancellation of previously issued but unused awards."

Ginsberg sued for breach of contract in January of 2009, but a California district court dismissed the class action suit, agreeing with Northwest that the Airline Deregulation Act preempted his claim. The act prohibits parties from bringing state law claims against airlines that relate to a "price, route, or service" of the carrier, according to court documents.

The airline's lawyers also argued that the WorldPerks general terms and conditions did not require Northwest to provide frequent fliers with lengthy explanations or reasons for its decision to terminate or demote a member's status in the program.

But last month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court's decision and ordered it to reconsider Ginsberg's claims. It said that when Congress passed the Airline Deregulation Act, it did not intend to "immunize the airline industry from liability for common law contract claims."

Delta did not respond to a request for comment, but the airline has requested a re-hearing in the case.

Ginsberg -- who is still a frequent flier, but is no longer loyal to any one airline -- said he is hoping to get his miles back, have his status reinstated and get fair compensation for what he's gone through.

"To me, it's outright fraud. You can't take somebody's mileage away when they've accumulated it," he said.

"We live in a country that was built on freedom and this to me is a tremendous abuse of freedom."

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