The Million Miler lawsuit against United is going forward.

Via Milepoint, a judge refused to dismiss breach of contract claims,

“It is undeniable that plaintiff claims he has and continues to suffer an injury based upon his lost benefits,” Leinenweber wrote. “At this stage of the litigation, the court finds it plausible that defendants had a contract with Million Miler members which differed from the contract they had with other Mileage Plus members.”

So while United claims they a right to change the terms of conditions of their program, the argument here is that there are additional and separate commitments that were made to million milers. It’s unclear to say the least whether this suit will prevail on the merits, or even ultimately get to trial (now that United has failed to get the whole thing tossed they may just be inclined to settle), but it’s worth reminding what United did.

  • 1 Million Mile status earns the equivalent of that earned at 50,000 miles of flying. That was true before, and it is still true. But United has since added a 75,000-mile status level. Which means Million Milers are lower in the status pecking order than before — they’re only one up from the bottom as before, but also further from the top. Further, benefits at the 50,000-mile flying level have been reduced, now earning a 50% bonus on flown miles instead of a 100% bonus.
  • No more systemwide upgrades upon first qualification for million miler status, and no annual confirmed regional upgrades.
  • United’s 2 million milers used to receive lifetime lounge membership. Those that already crossed that threshold get to keep the benefit, but new 2 million milers won’t receive it.

In fairness, United has added to its million miler program:

  • The ability to grant equivalent status to a spouse or partner.
  • The ability to achieve higher lifetime status levels than before, culminating in lifetime Global Services at 4 million flown miles.
  • Combining lifetime flying from United and Continental, and adjusting upwards the amount of lifetime miles flown by United members to match the more generous historical method of calculation used for Continental members. This recalculation bumped many members closer to or above next tiers of lifetime status without additional flying

Lifetime status is especially cherished and a hot button issue because it’s the most extreme version of Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football possible — it isn’t just saving up miles only to find a more expensive award chart and not being able to claim a mileage award without earning more miles, it’s having given a lifetime of loyalty to an airline and finding the value proposition changed later.

At the same time, it’s entirely logical that a program will change its details, especially after a merger when two airlines had different million mile policies. And some of the changes are positive. Some folks will like the changes, others won’t, and it’s not obvious to me at least that legal damages are appropriate here.

Still, United specifically assured Million Milers at United that their benefits wouldn’t change.

United said in October 2011 “[y]ou will continue to receive your benefits as you always have” and then take away the specific benefit of annual confirmed regional upgrades.

United was even specifically said that the confirmed domestic upgrades would continue:

I view United as basically having lied. But I’m not sure that every lie ought to be actionable.

  1. Delta Points said,

    Does make one think whey Delta said all MM’s don’t have to earn the MQD’s when it rolls out.

  2. jfhscott said,

    United lied/broke a promise.

    If so, perhaps no contract was formed (note that at this stage the lawsuit may move forward if it is “plausible”).

    But a promise may give rise to a claim in quasi-contract to the extent REASONABLY relied upon. I dunno what FF program promises can ever be REASONABLY relied upon, especially given their savings language that they may be terminated at any time.

    But that is mostly a question of fact, not one of law.

  3. Corky said,

    Are they seeking monetary damages or just trying to enjoin United from enforcing the rule change? It would be easy enough to calculate the value of the lost frequent flier miles but hard with the other benefits.

  4. peachfront said,

    I’m not a United flyer so perhaps there is something I’m missing, but if a big corporation promises something in exchange for your spending a lot of money, then refuses to provide what was promised, then what is your suggested alternative to a lawsuit when a big corporation lies to and then openly cheats the little guy? If UA had declared bankruptcy, yes, then under the restructuring they would no doubt be relieved of their duty to provide the upgrades but they are not bankrupt…they are a wildly successful business that has now absorbed a major competitor. I am not a lawyer and, again, I could certainly be missing something crazy obvious, but to this bystander in the street, it appears to me that United should either keep their promises to the Million Milers or else a judge needs to make a decision about what compensation the Million Milers should receive for being cheated.

    To say United “lied” makes it sound sweet and harmless, on a par with I lied when I said you don’t look fat in that dress. When you deprive someone of promised compensation after they’ve already given you the money/loyalty, that is more than just a lie. My two cents only, and I understand fully that I could be wrong. I’m asking, not telling. Sure, I agree — all lies are not actionable. How you look in that dress etc. should not be actionable when you find out later that people chuckled at your VPL. However, this isn’t about hurt egos. It’s about lost upgrades which presumably have a large monetary value.

    What am I missing that you would make a point of saying that you have doubts about someone litigating over this? I freely admit, I myself probably wouldn’t bother, but don’t you think these folks who do bother ultimately help all consumers by keeping big companies from going hog wild with the out-and-out false advertising?

  5. Tom said,

    I laughed when I first heard of this lawsuit but I’m glad it’s moving forward. Being a United Million Miler myself, I was sad to see the benefit watered down after having attained it. It’s yet another example of the micro-nickel and diming since the merger. However I wasn’t at all surprised given all the similar changes after the Continental takeover.

  6. Gene said,

    Worth noting that plaintiffs haven’t proven their case yet. Here, they have only demonstrated to the Court that they have sufficiently plead a cause of action upon which, with all inferences and allegations in their favor, relief could be granted. It is a facial plausibility (not probability) standard, so it is not often difficult for a plaintiff to survive such challenges at this early stage of litigation.

    The Court also properly found that the Airline Deregulation Act preempts plaintiff’s state-based claims and dismissed them with prejudice, following the jurisprudence of that Circuit as well as most of the nation. In short, claims against airlines rooted in state law, such as state consumer protection statutes, are almost always dismissed on the basis of federal preemption. This is to avoid airlines being subject to 50 different legal schemes for issues regarding the carrier’s rates, routes and services, leaving only the breach of contract claim in this case, which really is the heart of the matter.

    What is interesting is that Judge Leinenweber acknowledges that Million Milers may be a distinguishable category of MP members, and accordingly subject to a separate contract. It will be interesting to watch this litigation to see how the Court decides whether a separate contract actually exists, and ultimately how the contract is construed and enforced.

  7. Noah Kimmel said,

    Most people are reasonable. Most million-milers are business people that understand that businesses need to adapt.

    UA has a right to change the T&C whenever they want. I get it and agree with it. But as we see, they made a complete 180 turn not only with no warning, but by speaking misleading statements which amounts to bait and switch. UA probably should have moved slower, phased out benefits for “new” million milers, announced loss of upgrades 2 years before, etc. to avoid this sort of action.

    I wonder how mergers/bankruptcys affect all of tihs. When DL or AA does this, will they be able to claim that contracts written in the “old” airline can be thrown out?

  8. Rob said,

    I would imagine that United will end up “settling” by doing something like Delta, whereby you reach a milestone, you can pick one or two benefits from a list that combines old and new (regional upgrades, gift status, 100% bonus miles, etc). Makes sense since people can pick whatever is most valuable to them. It’s about the only thing Delta does that makes sense. I am 1K on United and Plat on Delta and I use United miles all the time for free travel but find Delta’s reward chart offensive and trying to figure out the best use of the hundreds of thousands of Delta miles. Their program is so bad, that I’ve decided to give up flying them.

  9. Nick said,

    United realized that with their much bigger network they would eventually have lots of million milers, why would you want to give low rev older fliers an upgrade for life on their annual vacation to Hawaii. But I do agree, gold on the new UA is basically the same as silver used to be on pre-merger UA, except with a lower upgrade rate.

  10. Bob W said,

    So Delta has rollover miles, a reasonable person would assume that 125,000 miles is the goal post for Diamond, now Delta adds a new goal post for Diamond, $$$, at one point I think I have Diamond for three years, with the new rules, I have Diamond for only two more years, Delta told me one thing and did another…how can these airlines continue to stick it to their customers this way and say the customers asked for it…I love this civil suit, I hope the new Consumer Protection agency takes a look at these ripoff airlines and their unscrupulous methods

  11. Robert Concord said,

    At some point, this has to catch up to United. About 20 years ago, I bought a SilverWings Plus “lifetime” membership, and they later watered down, then dumped the program without compensation (or any notice that I can remember). I was also one of those loyal United travelers (I’m a million miler) who went out and spent $1000 on my Explorer card last fall, only to have United later restrict the offer to residents of a few Central American nations.

    I’m with some of the commenters…I’m against nuisance suits, but at some point United has to know that abuse of its offers comes at a price.

  12. D Wonderment said,

    The problem in my eyes is the creepy greedy Continental management folks.They ran a program that punished members with slim pickings on award seats and now the same with saver awards at MP.
    Next to none most of the time on anything desirable.
    Their business behavior if I understand favored former One Pass members by grandfathering them in with lifetime elite status into MP but essentially discriminated against Mileage Plus members with some of these new changes devaluing most everything in their path despite some upsides.
    Though I have no vested interest in the outcome I welcome the suit as I dislike the new United,their greed and over inflated ego.It’s a just fair product that’s widly overpriced most of the time and stingy to its members.
    I will forever miss the classic old United that stole my heart and soul when I enjoyed proudly being a member of Mileage Plus in the 90s right through for some time post 9-11.Today I am a One World member and though I buy more first class tickets today always try and avoid United in everyway possible.

  13. Dan said,

    There’s a balance between screwing your customers over and making changes to your program to adapt to an ever changing business climate.

    There is a saying that what the big print giveth, the fine print taketh away. I think that sucks. Businesses should be bound to the promises that they make. The reasonable man test should apply to marketing materials, as it does in other aspects of the law.

    Yes, we do have nuisance suits in this country, but not all contract clauses are legal. I’m happy to see UA challenged in court.

  14. Fredd said,

    Robert Concord, There is a class action suit regarding Silver Wings being pursued by the same law firm acting for the plaintiffs in this case.

    I too am a lifetime member.

    You can find the details in threads on MilePoint and FT.

  15. Robert Concord said,

    Fredd — many thanks for the reminder. I’d seen something about the Silverwings lawsuit a year or so ago, but I hadn’t followed it. I will catch up shortly.

  16. Nissan Cohen said,

    As a Million Miler since 2001, I am appalled at the lack of foresight and commitment by United. Unfortunately, I am 27,000 miles, as of today, away from Two Million Miles.

    The old program stated that two million miles flown on United were rewarded with Lifetime United airport lounge benefits. This has been taken away and replaced with a Platinum Status for life. Platinum status means nothing to those of us still flying. Internationally, my lifetime gold status is recognized for entrance to all airline clubs associated with the Star Alliance. So rewarding someone with a Platinum Status for life is really not a benefit at all. Even upgrading with a Platinum status is almost impossible. As the 1Ks have precedence over everyone except Global Services which is a “made up status” that does not require any travel at all.

    The goal of any airline program is to promote airline loyalty. United is only thinking of how to disenfranchise their most loyal flyers.

    The cost to United for Lifetime benefits is not really an issue. After all you could but a lifetime membership to the old United Red Carpet Club for $50 in 1976. How many of those were sold and are under retention today? Some of us (1Ks) complained that membership to The United Club by using miles was revoked. But, it was instituted for the Global Services. I, personally, wrote a letter to United talking about discrimination and that we had been able to purchase United Club memberships for years using miles instead of cash.

    Although this practice was re-instituted, United did not send any notification to any 1K or anyone else. I only found out about it when I told an employee at the United Club of the practice. She stated, “we just got a memo on that and you can now use mileage again”. This was never instituted and still is not on the website.

    This never-ending saga of how to nickel-and-dime the most loyal flyers is despicable should be curtailed.

  17. Rob said,

    Gary – any progress on this lawsuit? I got my million mile status a year or two ago. The only benefits I don’t have that I wish I did have are all around award tickets ;no fees for canceling or changing our close – in booking. Those benefits are now for platinum and 1k. I’ve been 1k for years but now just a lowly million miler, so gold status. Thanks!

  18. UG said,

    Rob, the court came to a verdict whether the suit should move forward and be given class-action status on the 13th of January, 2014. The verdict was mailed to the respective law firms and we shall wait and see.

  19. Rob said,

    Great, thanks for the update. Cheers, Rob

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