And Now For a Really Stupid Lawsuit

Frequent Flier Programs, United

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.

United Award Mileage Earning

Even if you book elsewhere, you can always go to the mileage calculator to figure out how much you’ll earn.

United Mileage Calculator

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.

[Read the whole lawsuit here if you have time to waste]

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43 comments on “And Now For a Really Stupid Lawsuit

    1. Sadly, this is why Southwest’s old system was a good one. Simply counting intinerary segments.

      Simplicity is sacrificed because of people like this who do everything they can to game the system, rather than regard it as the benefit it is! Next time people complain about obscure airline rules, remember, this is what happens when there is ambiguity. UA now has to spend time and money to combat this and the media perception.

      Doesn’t he realize that this would only result in devaluing miles further, and making the system less “fair” or “equal” due to the differences in every flight?

      1. Southwest system is a good one for them because all (most of) their flights are more or less the same (ie short haul from 1 to 3 hours).
        If your network is different, then, counting segment is like adding carrots and turnips : the soup will taste a lot different according to the mix you have !!!

    2. WN’s system used to work very well when it was a simple point-to-point airline that flew mostly short-haul routes. Unfortunately, not so much for the airline that WN has morphed into here in modern times. Under the old system, a DAL-HOU-DAL round-trip had exactly the same value as LAX-EWR-LAX. Simple, yes, but skewed towards short-haul, low-dollar flights, a model which WN has slowly but surely moved away from.

  1. Sarcasm Alert!

    Mr. Han is completely rightt in his court action, just like those who still think the president was born in Kenya.

    Get over yourself man, you are rediculous.

  2. This guy must be one of those Silver Elites that complains every time he doesn’t get upgraded, even though he paid the lowest possible fare :)

  3. “It?s a waste of taxpayer resources that will only provide a significant benefit for the lawyers involved.”

    How is this a waste of taxpayer resources? You have to pay filing fee’s and other fee’s to file a civil lawsuit, which cover the expenses of the service provided. If the lawsuit is absolutely frivilous the loser cad be stuck with the legal bill, and the lawyers punished or fined for a frivilous lawsuit. Not exactly seeing how a civil court matter that is paid to be adjudicated by the plaintiff is a waste of taxpayer resources? Is it still dumb? Well, yes.

    1. It is a waste of taxpayer resources because filing fees cannot possibly cover all of the costs of the courts: salaries & benefits of all court employees including all retirement, tens of millions of dollars to build courthouses, IT infrastructure to run the courthouses and keep information in perpetuity, etc.

    2. Sean S – As Shane says, those filing fees aren’t covering everything. Now, do I think that costs would go down if this case didn’t exist? Certainly not. However the wait times to get through the system would clear more quickly. And if we eliminated all these kinds of frivolous suits, then we could see real cost reduction.

  4. I agree that this is a stupid, frivolous lawsuit.

    That said, a more interesting lawsuit – albeit still stupid – would be why I earn actual miles when I pay to fly, but have to use higher amounts – vs. actual – to get an award ticket.

    I earn what, something like 5,000 miles to fly JFK to LAX. But I have to spend 25K miles to do it on an award ticket.

    Which makes programs like B6’s more fair, to a point, since it’s hard to figure out how many points it takes to get the free ticket.

    So yeah, his lawsuit is dumb, but these programs are WAY too complex.

    1. I never understood why airlines reward on miles flown not dollars spent. Airlines know better than anyone that price is not based on cost. Even the idea of segments, which I like as a metric over miles since most business pax dont determine where they fly, is obscured in the world on non-stop vs. connections.

      1. Noah, that one is really simple: look at when the airlines introduced thes programs in the early 1980s, the airline business looked nothing like it did today. While I’m sure the spend and mile disconnect existed then too, I’d bet its on a completely different scale now.

  5. Stating the obvious but this is insanely stupid and I hoped it is dismissed with prejudice so that Mr. Han is responsible for reimbursing additional court costs and defense attorney fees.

  6. So last year when I flew from Denver to DC and had to circle about 10 times because of a thunderstorm, United owes me the base 1500 miles plus another 1000 miles for circling? SWEET!!!

    The lawyers who pick up this must love to fly. What else are they going to do with 30% of the miles they will get for their fee from these people that were “screwed” by United?

  7. I think UA should simply bill Mr. Han for the extra mileage he used but didn’t pay for. After all, using his logic, he only paid to fly 13, 840 miles. Why should he have expected United to fly him an extra 479 miles for free? I’m sure if UA looked back through his flying history, they could back bill him for thousands in unpaid for extra miles. And, of course, once he pays for those extra miles, the ffm associated with those miles would be his to keep.

  8. Just think that would mean if you take off to the north and need to circle around to head south, you would get extra miles for that.

    Why not toss in if you are to leave from gate 1 and they move you to gate 30, you get extra miles (divided into yards) to walk to the new gate.

    If this really was to cause a big legal issue, the airlines could just say forget it and just drop mileage programs all together. The cost/time to track every exact mile on every flight for every second in the air every day would be to much. Also airlines would just tell the pilots to fly in a straight line from point A to point B, and you won’t go around bad weather anymore, but flight right through it. Who would want that as a passenger!

  9. I think United will win! I dont see why Mr Han feels he is owed Miles, Airlines do it as the crow flies so they don’t get sued because someone ends up losing miles for the flight being more direct thus losing them miles off of the base miles
    Now for an example of Mr Han’s system: Flight one: 6000 Miles plus 490 for a weather diversion then 10 Miles for the hold over at the destination= 6,500 miles
    Flight two:6000 Miles -500 for a more direct route+ Zero miles for holding at destination= 5,500 Miles
    I don’t know about you but it just seems easy to stick to as crow flies and give you bonus miles if needed

    1. Well, you know some strange crows !!!…
      How can you find a more direct route than the “as the crow flies” one ???
      By digging a tunnel so you don’t get it by the curvature of the earth ???

  10. I wouldn’t participate in this class action if it gets that far, either. Number one, I agree it’s frivolous, and number two, it would be a waste of time to participate anyway. I am bombarded all the time with these “investor actions” on stocks I own – you know, the kind that are like 40 pages long, and you have to waste a bunch of time filling out forms and sending in documentation to entitle you to benefits for being a part of the “class”. You end up wasting a couple of hours on a Saturday to fill these out, just so you can get a check in the mail for $3.62 a year later, which represents your share of the class-action settlement.

  11. The root problem is that we as a country have too many lawyers chasing too few clients. Sound familiar? I agree with Brett here. I think this suit is friviolous and should be tossed, but no one knows what a judge will do.

    1. Agreed. Following the lead of the airlines and the railroads before them we simply need I merge the lawyers. It’d be messy, but I’m sure someone could figure it out.

  12. ATC to UA234 “We are showing a line of level 4 storms ahead, would you like to deviate?
    UA234- “Negative, we’ll ride it out. Don’t to award any extra miles!”

  13. This is the most incredibly stupid lawsuit I’ve heard of in a while. I wonder if Mr. Han is the same guy who was yelling at the gate agent at SFO that he didn’t get in to First on a Seattle-bound A320, and then got on the plane and proceeded to yell about it on his cell phone to United Reservations while the plane was taxiing. It was the worst display of “elite flier entitlement” I’ve ever seen.

  14. 598 out of 13,480. About 4.2%. United – award every single member an extra 5%, publish new rules about how mileage is calculated, raise the required redemption miles by 10%, and put Mr. Han on a permanent no-fly list.

  15. Don’t blame the moron customer, blame the attorney so depraved that s/he would take on this case. There are alot of nut cases out there, but an equal number of greedy lawyers.

  16. Unicorn rides for 10,000 miles Sweet, I’m in.

    The legal system is broken. What we need to do is charge the loosing ATTORNEY for the winning attorney’s fees. That way the attornies will make the critical evaluation of the suit rather than just file the paperwork hoping for a settlement.

    1. Amazingly enough attorneys can be censured and even disbarred for completely frivolous lawsuits. I’m sure there is some legal loophole that Mr. Han’s lawyer has weasled through.

  17. He should sue for his vertical miles too. Climb to FL370 = 7 miles, descent is another 7 miles. Climb up to FL420 to clear a storm? Another mile!

    Better yet, compute vertical miles in AGL (above ground level). Fly over the Rockies and AGL will vary by miles constantly. You can be a million miler by the time you hit Denver.


  18. Class action lawsuits very rarely go to trial. Most likely United will settle the case by giving Mr. Han several thousand miles, other participants maybe a few hundred, and the attorneys a few million dollars. This would be cheaper than what it would cost them to go to trial. They (and other airlines) will then modify their terms to clarify this, if they haven’t moved to points-based programs by then.

  19. Typical asinine frivolous class-action-wannabe lawsuit.

    By this idiot’s logic, UA should reverse bill him for the miles that he flew that he didn’t pay for… Sounds good to me.

  20. I’m sure UA’s lawyers have seen just about everything and I doubt that this one stands out. These programs have been out there a long time and have had various cases against them dealing with adequacy of notification of changes to/effective dates of the programs, ability to or not to sell/transfer miles, etc.

    [I’m not sure the determination of miles for change-of-gauge flights has been litigated but I’d be surprised if it hasn’t been floated out there.]

    Of interest, according to the web site of filing law firm, Mei & Mark, LLP, they have filed the same cases against US (plaintiff Annette Kwok, and others) and DL (plaintiff Wynette Kwok, and others) relative to their FF programs. All filed in the same federal court on or about mid-March).

    It seems possible all the lead plaintiffs are from the same family. (Mei & Mark, LLP describes itself as “The leading minority-owned Intellectual Property and Litigation law firm.” at the lead of what looks like its press release.)

  21. I am not so sure Mr. Han’s logic is so flawed. Afterall, the IRS allows a mileage deduction for medically related circumstances; not the number of trips to the doctor, but actual mileage. If Flight Aware can track actual miles flown on each trip it wouldn’t be such a stretch in this electronic age for an airline to keep track of actual miles flown. The difference would be VERY significant at year’s end and therefore VERY costly. It might cut into their baggage fees and change fees that rip off the flying public every day. No wonder United wants this suit to “go away.”

    1. Even if an airline could do that (its in the realm of possibility, but I’m not sure its within the realm of sanity), it’d still be a customer service nightmare. What about those who fly one routing frequently and expect to get a status based on a normal routing, but if they flew a more direct routing one day and that person didn’t get status because of it I’m quite sure their’d be people complaining.

      Incidentally, I spent a few moments wasting time reading the lawsuit, Mr. Han’s claim lies upon the fact that he said he flew United more because they were going to award him actual miles, whereas other carriers were going to award him something lesser than that… The fact that Mei & Mark, LLP has filed this against multiple airlines sort of negates their argument…

  22. At first glance, I thought this lawsuit was ridiculous; I have read frequent flyer program terms & conditions before, and they contain boiler-plate language saying the accrual of miles is based on straight-line calculations between airports and not miles actually flown. So, I decided to look at United’s rules after this, and I am shocked to say that whatever attorney reviewed them dropped the ball. The Terms & Conditions do NOT have this clause. This is a *huge* oversight. If this would go to trial (very unlikely), United will make an Expectations argument (especially for purchases through that state the miles that will be earned or because he is a frequent traveler and should know that industry custom is straight-line calculations) and probably prevail, but United earned themselves this lawsuit for not having this boiler-plate language that is in other FF program rules. If you read the terms & conditions in isolation (without taking into consideration any other understanding about how FF programs work), Mr. Han’s interpretation is not unreasonable, so the lawsuit isn’t entirely ridiculous. At most, United’s liability would be to credit the miles for the last 12 months, but United may allow class certification if it comes to the conclusion that it may have liability since the class certification would resolve all these claims at once (The Plaintiff’s Attorney would also get a big payout).

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