Million-Miler Sues United For Being Downgraded To Second-Tier Status

If you’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the same airline over the years with the understanding that you will reap lifelong benefits for doing so, you’d probably be a bit peeved when that airline decides that you’re just a regular old business traveler. That’s why one million-miler on United Airlines has filed suit.

The man, who says he flew anywhere from 200,000 to 250,000 miles each year on United, claims that recent changes in the wake of its merger with Continental, have led to an “immediate and significant retroactive demotion of benefits to Million Milers.”

Before the Continental merger, members of United’s Million Mile club had been “guaranteed Lifetime Premier Executive status for life.” which included a one-time award of three system-wide upgrades, two free regional upgrades a year, a 100% bonus for the miles flown each year, and other boarding and seating benefits.

But then when the merged airline announced its MileagePlus program last October, Million Milers were put into the Premier Gold tier for travelers who fly at least 50,000 miles each year.

For the plaintiff in the lawsuit, this 50% bonus miles instead of the 100% he’d been enjoying. Also gone are the three system-wide upgrades and the two annual regional upgrades.

“United’s egregious actions, if left unabated, will result in its unlawlly, not to mention immorally, retaining the millions upon millions of dollars it received from Million Miler members,” reads the lawsuit, which alleges breach of contract, good faith and fair dealing, and seeks class-action status for similarly affected Million-milers.

“After the merger, United reneged by taking away or downgrading all the promised lifetime benefits, only to market them as ‘new and improved benefits.’ Million Milers are hardworking people, most who are required to fly for a living,” the man tells ABC News. “They are not asking for anything more than what was promised to them by United.”

A rep for United tells ABC that, “We believe this suit is without merit.”

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Chicago ‘Million Miler’ Sues United Airlines in Class Action for ‘Immorally’ Taking Away Perks [ABC]

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  1. That guy. says:

    which included a one-time award of three system-wide upgrades

    Can someone explain to me what this means?

    • nbs2 says:

      It means that he has three “certificates” that allow him to be upgraded on any flight. Even that Newark to Pyongyang longhaul. They are worth a lot because if use effectively (like the aforementioned), you save a ton of cash.

      • colpuck says:

        However, the cheapest fare buckets are excluded and the upgrades are done on a space available basis.

    • keeper1616 says:

      It means that once someone crossed the million mile threshold, they got 3 System Wide Upgrades (now called Global Premier Upgrades) that could be used to upgrade certain fare classes on any flight that United operates. For example, if you purchased an economy fare (W class or higher) then you could upgrade to Business class for free. Or, if you purchased a business class ticket, you could upgrade to First class.

      United also gives these out to their 1K and Global Services members each year.

    • Amp says:

      Given that this is United, I’d assume it’s the same as when my IT dept. runs a system-wide upgrade: Very slow processing and up to 24 hours without access.

    • Coffee says:

      It means they won’t kill his dog.

    • colpuck says:

      Prior to 2012 people who flew 1,000,000 miles received three System wide upgrades “SWUs” as a gift. Good for one year they allowed a person to upgrade one-way from coach to business or business to first.

      Currently, 100,000 milers (aka 1Ks, people who fly 100,000 miles each year) get six SWUs per year.

    • Nobby says:

      SWUs no longer have meaning, apparently.

  2. Darrone says:

    “guaranteed Lifetime Premier Executive status for life.”

    GLPESL – The second L is for Lawsuit.

    • That guy. says:

      “Excuse me, is this lifetime status for life?”

      • A.Mercer says:

        There was a time when that was a stupid question.

      • Blueskylaw says:

        Yes Sir, this is an upgrade for life Sir, until of course the next merger or bankruptcy, then you along with our fuel suppliers, pension holders, employees, bondholders, stock holders, food suppliers, caterers, cleaners, mechanics, etc. are SCREWED.

    • TrustAvidity says:

      The only thing I can remotely guess it means is the customer gets the membership until they die or until the program ends…. lifetime of the customer for the life of the program.

  3. Hi_Hello says:

    so if united when under and closed shop… can he still sue.

    from what I understand, he’s suing because of his contract with united…
    don’t contract ends/change when company merge?

    I wish I sued LA Fitness.

    • wrjohnston91283 says:

      Generally not – otherwise it would be easy to get out of a contract simply by “merging” with another entity. Perhaps there was language in the frequent flier program docs that did allow United to suspend/end the program if they merged, in which case, he may be out of luck. However, generally if a company is purchased or merges with another, then the surviving entity needs to honor the original contracts.

      • castlecraver says:

        True, however just about every FF program contains language that allows the airline to “discontinue or modify the program at it’s sole discretion for any reason.” They most likely didn’t need to merge to pull the rug out from under him.

        Your second point is also true, but do some quick research into former Gov. Romney’s Bain Capital to find out how the purchasing entity can absolve themselves of those pesky labor contracts and benefit obligations. It’s shady as hell, but can be done pretty easily.

      • JJFIII says:

        Actually, I bet if you read the contract it state specifically that the program may be changed, modified or discontinued at ANY time by the airline with or without warning. If you sign up for a credit card with rewards dollars on them, they are not required to continue them anymore than the airline is. End of discussion.

    • frankrizzo:You're locked up in here with me. says:

      Are you related to Roman Maroni?

  4. GenXCub says:

    When I saw the word unlawlly, I immediately thought “does that just mean ‘not funny?'”

  5. kc-guy says:

    The “guaranteed Lifetime Premier Executive status for life” program ended when, as a result of the merger, United’s Department of Redundancy Department was sacked.

    • vastrightwing says:

      No problem. United can simply give him his money back. This is the usual procedure when a company can’t fulfill their obligation.

  6. Free Legal Advice! says:

    Where’s the detrimental reliance? Is there a lost opportunity cost? It has been a long time since I took contracts, but I think Mr. Million Miler is out of luck. These awards programs are usually changable at the whim of the granting company.

    Once upon a time, airline would compete for the business traveller’s fare. Now they know that travel budgets are cut and competing on price alone is what will drive sales.

    • WalterSinister2 says:

      He would have flown some other airline if they hadn’t offered the MMC in bad faith, is probably his theory of the case.

    • WalterSinister2 says:

      BTW, I was just directly answering your question before, but.

      Detrimental reliance is a substitute for consideration, not a separate requirement. The classic case is “move down here and I will take care of you” told to a female relative who then moved in reliance on the promise. She hadn’t given him anything in consideration, but she relied on him to her detriment (absent his living up to his end).

      The basic elements of a contract are offer, acceptance, and consideration. His theory is likely that United Offered a deal with lifetime benefits, he accepted the deal, and in consideration of the deal, gave them money.

  7. FilthyHarry says:

    “retroactive demotion of benefits”

    How can that be? Did they send a bill for past benefits received?

  8. GoldVRod says:

    “unlawlly”

    Hopefully that wording isn’t in the lawllysuit.

  9. castlecraver says:

    I can’t be certain what the contract stated when he originally signed up for the program, but looking at it today and assuming this is the sort of boilerplate that finds its way into just about every T&C ever written, the VERY FIRST POINT states quite clearly:

    “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.”

    http://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/mileageplus/rules/default.aspx

    • BStu78 says:

      So?

      Companies insert unenforceable language into contracts all the time. It obviously doesn’t help his case, but just because a company asserts they can do something doesn’t mean they can. I’ve signed a few leases in my day with unenforceable provisions. That’s why we have a court system to detrimine just what United can get away with. I tend to think they will get away with this, but thinking its as simply as pointing out some contract provision like that mistakes the actual purpose of such language which is to discourage lawsuits. It doesn’t automatically negate them. They just scare a lot of people off well before they get to this point.

      Look at a clearer example. A hotel offers a secure parking garage but then says they aren’t responsible if your car is stolen. Their “disclaimer” essentially negates the entire purpose of the product they are selling. If they sold you parking on the basis of having a security guard monitor it, and then didn’t actually staff it with a security guard, they darn well are responsible even if they have a little sign that insists they aren’t. Or a coat check that says they aren’t responsible if your coat is stolen. Securing your coat was the entirety of the service they were providing. They can’t disclaimer their way out of that obligation.

      A lot of contract provisions are perfectly enforceable, that’s why we have a civil court system. To decide that. The existence of a provision doesn’t mean the case has no merit.

      • castlecraver says:

        Thanks for the lecture, but I think I’ve already taken that course.
        Specifically, are there any compelling rationale for arguing that this specific condition in a FF T&C is unenforceable? I think it’s probably valid.

        • TRRosen says:

          Its unenforceable because its unilateral and nullifies the entire contract. A contracts requires consideration by both parties. This clause basically says the airline is promising nothing and guaranteeing no consideration.

          • aerodawg says:

            Which for something that only costs one party something is probably acceptable.

            When you pay for an airline ticket, you’re paying for a seat on the flight. FF programs are something airlines CHOOSE to offer you at no additional charge as a fringe benefit of butt in seat.

            If you’re not paying for anything, you’re not entitled to anything especially not in perpetuity…

            • It's not my baby, baby! says:

              You forget that these frequent flyer programs are used as a marketing tool. These programs fall under the category of value-added benefits. If the company offers you something that they think will not get them some sort of net gain, they are stupid and deserve to have their bad decision keep hurting them. It’s the essence of true capitalism.

              You can think of it like this:

              You buy a car from one company because they offer a free lifetime detailing service. One day they merge with a competing dealership and then they discontinue their detailing service. That actually lowers the utility that you get from your vehicle since now you have to pay for this service.

      • JJFIII says:

        Except this is NOT anything like those cases. The frequent flier program is an ADDED benefit. It is not the benefit you are deriving. If a hotel says, we offer parking, but there is no available parking spots due to them being sold out, does not mean you can say you want your money back. If they say they have a pool, but it is 20 degrees in Buffalo New York, does not mean you can say you want your money back. This suit is without merit in any way shape or form, and any lawyer who takes it, is hoping for a sympathetic jury, and the airlines wanting t do away with the cost of the attorneys. I think the airline should pulverize this douche bag and tell him to READ THE FUCKING CONTRACT. Nobody forced him to sign up for the extra benefits.

        A better analogy to take your coat check one further would be if at one time at the coat check, they brought the coat out to your table BEFORE you left the restaurant, but decided to save money, or avoid problems have the customers go to the coat check room to pick it up. This would not mean you can be reimbursed for the 100 times previous, OR the next 100 times you eat there because it is different.

        Just because you WANT something does not mean you are entitled to it.

      • JJFIII says:

        Except this is NOT anything like those cases. The frequent flier program is an ADDED benefit. It is not the benefit you are deriving. If a hotel says, we offer parking, but there is no available parking spots due to them being sold out, does not mean you can say you want your money back. If they say they have a pool, but it is 20 degrees in Buffalo New York, does not mean you can say you want your money back. This suit is without merit in any way shape or form, and any lawyer who takes it, is hoping for a sympathetic jury, and the airlines wanting t do away with the cost of the attorneys. I think the airline should pulverize this douche bag and tell him to READ THE FUCKING CONTRACT. Nobody forced him to sign up for the extra benefits.

        A better analogy to take your coat check one further would be if at one time at the coat check, they brought the coat out to your table BEFORE you left the restaurant, but decided to save money, or avoid problems have the customers go to the coat check room to pick it up. This would not mean you can be reimbursed for the 100 times previous, OR the next 100 times you eat there because it is different.

        Just because you WANT something does not mean you are entitled to it.

        • Speedstr says:

          But you have to understand the United’s Million Mile club is a loyalty perk designed to reward it’s travelers who make the commitment to fly with them pretty much exclusively (or near it to achieve the yearly mileage requirements)

          When you advertise a perk that has the wording “guaranteed Lifetime Premier Executive status for life”, it generally accepted as bad faith to degrade these benefits to all current enrollees.

          No matter what extra clauses you bury into the contract, you’re setting yourself up for a lawsuit when you try to take away or degrade benefits that you had advertised with the words, “Guaranteed Lifetime”.

  10. wetrat says:

    American is doing a status match… there’s still time to switch!

    • feep says:

      But then they would have to fly American. Depending on who you ask, this may still be a downgrade.

  11. colpuck says:

    You know the video is about a totally different lawsuit.

  12. Gizmosmonster says:

    I blame Jimmy Carter.

    Time and time again huge corporations have shown that they actually don’t have the consumer’s best interest in mind. They have given up even the pretense of customer service.

    Airline Execs should take a look at the Newspaper industry. For decades, newspapers took for granted their virtual monopoly on classified and local ads. Craigslist and the internet have taken over most of these. Almost every newspaper in the country is on or close to life support because of the refusal to think beyond their own bank accounts.

    The airlines seem to feel that same way. Something will likely come along to make long distance traveling easier and better. Without loyal customers, they will be in trouble. And few will feel any pity for them.

  13. prosumer1 says:

    United is, by far the most suck-ass airline in the U.S. I have never had any smooth flights with them. The things I have encountered while flying on United: Lost luggage, being bumped off the flight, delayed flight, mechanical failure which led to cancellation, and sitting on the tarmac for four hours. I have high status too, but with US Airways, which is supposed to be partners prior to the United/Continental merger. United high-milers get treated as equals when they flew US Airways, but when US Airways high milers fly with United, we get treated like shit.

    I would stay away from United at all cost. I don’t care if their flights are cheaper.

  14. Levk says:

    Well, lets see you can sue Untied a company that really is not around anymore or sue the people that did not make the promise to you… good luck?

    • GoldVRod says:

      When you take over a company you then own the existing legal contractual obligations as well. Otherwise any company who wanted out of unprofitable long term contracts et al could simply create a new company name and then absorb the old company. Ta da!

      It would be like me trying to get out of an ETF phone contract or two-year cable contract by changing my name. “I’m sorry Mr GoldVRod is no longer in residence and thus is not available to pay any bills. Who am I? Why I’m Mr PlatinumVRod.”

      Would you be in favour of that?

      • SeattleSeven says:

        I agree with you… but with this example you used… I would be in favor of that.

    • JJFIII says:

      You seem to forget that United went through a bankruptcy, This would be an unsecured debt. The contract says clearly they can change it at ANY time for any reason. How much clearer can they make it.

      • Thyme for an edit button says:

        I did not see a copy of the contract. Link? I’d be curious what it said.

  15. Cooneymike says:

    A rep for United tells ABC that, “We believe this suit is without merit.”

    Without merit, unless United cares at all about what people who fly 200,000 to 250,000 miles per year think. Since they have both shown and said they don’t lets all cue the demise of this round of United managers (who will still rack up a few years of huge salaries) while trying to fingure out why they can’t make money before giving up and asking for a government bail-out.

    • wildgift says:

      Unless there’s another airline competing for the 200k miles customers, it won’t matter.

    • Tallanvor says:

      The customers who are still flying 200-250k miles per year have the top tier status anyways. This only affects travelers who used to fly a lot but don’t anymore.

  16. SeattleSeven says:

    When will they stop making promises for life?

    Free first class for life!
    Free elite status that includes X for life!
    Free lounge access for life!

  17. arcticJKL says:

    “United’s egregious actions, if left unabated, will result in its unlawlly, not to mention immorally”

    I can’t wait for the court to rule on the morality of the issue.

  18. frodolives35 says:

    This is a classic example of the marketing spin vs the actual wording. Its kind of like the letters so small on the bottom of some commercials that you can’t read it on a 60 inch tv from 5 feet away. For life unless we change it after we take your money.

    • econobiker says:

      Or the superfast and super quiet guy at the end of radio commercials.

      Remember always fear the asterisk*

      *Additional terms, conditions, fees, taxes, etc may apply.

  19. mikesanerd says:

    “For the plaintiff in the lawsuit, this 50% bonus miles instead of the 100% he’d been enjoying. Also gone are the three system-wide upgrades and the two annual regional upgrades.” Ah, first world problems…

    • Doubting thomas says:

      Everyone who uses the phrase “First World Problems” should have red hot pokers inserted into all of their bodily orifices SIDEWAYS. If you live in a developed nation then, by definition, all of your problems are first world problems. If you are in Washington D.C. and men break into your home, break your kneecaps, murder your family and rape your dog that is a first world problem.

      People’s problems are real, and the fact that someone somewhere else has problems you judge to be worse does not change how much it sucks for that individual.

      • Cor Aquilonis says:

        Related-ly, I like to tell myself “ahhhh, first world problem” every time I have a problem. It makes me grateful. For example: had to pay for paint and body work on my car so it’s presentable in public – ahhhh, first world problem (at least I have a car, and a job, and money to pay for it, and so on. A little paint is nothing in the grand scheme of things.)

        I use it on myself to inspire gratitude, but I also agree with your point.

  20. Peggee has pearls and will clutch them when cashiers ask "YOU GOT A WIC CHECK MA'AM?" says:

    Million Milers are hardworking people

    As opposed to the rest of us, who sit on our asses hoping to win the lottery? Why did they feel that was necessary or relevant?

    • tailspin says:

      While it could have been phrased better, I understand what they’re trying to say. Business travel sucks — you’re away from your family for days (or even weeks) at a time, eating crappy food, working super-long hours and barely sleeping because you keep switching time zones. It’s not glamorous. I don’t know anyone who loves working “on the road” that much, and if someone has that many airline miles it means their work has taken over their life.

      • Coelacanth says:

        Hell, sometimes even months… (although the argument could be made that it’s a long enough experience to make new friends and absorb the local culture a bit.)

  21. bben says:

    Once upon a time, the airlines actually valued their regular customers. The benefits to frequent fliers were valued by the fliers and kept them loyal. Then, some MBA saw that those benefits cost the company cash As a former MBA candidate, I learned the cash is the ONLY thing that has any meaning to a MBA – and neglected to look at the ROI (return on investment) in goodwill, repeat business and recommendations. That guy that flies 100k for business every year is going to spend a lot on tickets even if he does get a few free upgrades. I used to fly on a particular airline by preference because of the benefits of their frequent flier program.

    No more – because they no longer reward the actual fliers, but mostly the holders of their company branded (fee based, high interest rip off) credit cards instead. It has become almost impossible to get a free flight – not because of the number of miles required, but because there are NEVER any seats available when I want to go. What good is a free ticket if you can’t use it?

    This year for the first time in nearly 30 years I do not have some level of elite status on some airline. The primary reason is it’s just not worth the inconvenience of flying if I can find another way to conduct my business. I also no longer change my own schedule to fit that of some airline just to get those now meaningless frequent flier miles.

  22. obtusegoose says:

    I don’t care about the legal details. When United bought Continental, they had an obligation to honor their previous programs (or change them to their own programs that have an equal or greater value). If I was on a jury, it would take me 5 minutes to rule in favor of the Million-Milers. Continental made a promise to its customers; United needs to honor that promise. That’s a very simple concept. You don’t f-over your customers. Especially, highly valued ones.