I received a request from Janet Cho at the Cleveland Plain Dealer to comment on a story last week about a man suing United for the way the airline awards miles. This lawsuit got me so worked up, that I decided to talk about it here on the blog.
Hongbo Han is an elite member in United’s MileagePlus program, and he’s not happy. I think we all know roughly how airlines award miles in their frequent flier programs when you fly, right? The airlines look at the number of miles it takes to go directly between those two airports (great circle route) and award those miles to you. Talking about United specifically, this is made very clear in several places.
If you book on the United website, you’ll get the exact number of miles presented to you before you purchase.
Even if you book elsewhere, you can always go to the mileage calculator to figure out how much you’ll earn.
Seems pretty clear and sensible to do it this way, I’d say. But according to Hongbo Han, United is screwing you. Yes, he thinks United has made a promise to award you the actual number of miles you fly on every single flight. Did you divert around some weather? Maybe that’s an extra 50 miles. Were the winds were too strong on the most direct route, so you went 100 miles further to shorten flight time? You should get those 100 miles.
What a logistical nightmare that would be.
How does Hongbo Han come to this conclusion? Well, according to the lawsuit, “nowhere in the MileagePlus Program Rules does United state that the mileage or miles credited are not actual miles flown by the member.” I think it’s important to note that United also fails to state that for every 10,000 miles flown, you get a unicorn ride. But I want one, so I’m just going to make that rule up. After all, they say the vagueness in the contract goes in favor of the party that didn’t draft the contract.
Let’s look at the two examples presented in the case. One is from Dulles to Beijing and the other is the return. This guy is saying that United under-awarded him mileage. They gave him only 13,840 miles when in fact he actually flew 14,319 miles. On top of those 479 extra miles, his 25 percent elite bonus of 119 miles means United should theoretically owe him 598 miles.
Naturally filing this kind of lawsuit this would be a huge waste of time and money for anyone who is halfway sane, but this lawsuit is shooting for class action status. My guess it that there are a bunch of lawyers sitting around thinking they can pull this off. With so many people being deprived of their little bits of miles, the lawyers figure just as any lawyer in a class action suit does… there’s a ton of money for them to make with very little benefit to the people who actually are supposed to benefit.
The solution going forward is that United will certainly just update its program rules to say what people already know: you will earn a flat number of miles equal to the shortest distance between the two points. But what about all those people who were “wronged” over the last few years?
If this suit goes as planned, then United will have to put together a team of people to connect two very different IT systems to somehow match up actual flight distance with each flight taken by each MileagePlus member. Then they’ll probably put together another team to go through Hongbo Han’s entire history to find a way to ban him from the program. (Ok, maybe not. But that’s definitely what they’ll want to do.)
I for one hope that this suit disappears quickly, because it’s pretty much everything that’s wrong with the court system. It’s a waste of taxpayer resources that will only provide a significant benefit for the lawyers involved.
If this does gain class action status, then I would certainly be eligible for a piece of the winnings as a member of the program who has earned miles on flights. But I will not participate. This is completely ridiculous.