Executive Travel : Airlines May Be More Cautious on Flier Plans


Airlines may become more cautious about changing frequent-flier programs after Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision that gives travelers who feel awards have been unfairly restricted a greater opportunity to sue.

But thrifty air passengers who have been saving up their frequent-flier miles should not expect the high court’s ruling to increase the value of their miles for years--if ever.

The court ruled that disgruntled members of American Airlines’ AAdvantage frequent-flier program could sue in an Illinois court for breach of contract because of retroactive changes to the mileage award program. Although the airline allowed miles to be used before changes were made, travelers who did not yet have enough miles for a desired award were left further from their goal. The justices did not say whether there was a breach of contract.

Some hailed the decision. “For years, the airlines have been hiding behind the 1978 Deregulation Act . . . and consumers felt that they had no arena in which to air their complaints,” said Tom Parsons, editor of Best Fares Discount Travel magazine. “Now they may find themselves answering to angry customers in state and local courts all over the country.”


Randy Peterson, publisher of the newsletter Inside Flyer, agreed that the decision is likely to lead to court battles in many states. For example, pending cases against United and Delta will probably go forward now, he said. “I think the message is quite clear,” he said. The court “has given consumers a bit more of a right” to fight the airlines.

Al Becker, a spokesman for American Airlines in Ft. Worth, said it could be years before a verdict is reached in a state court. “We’re not anticipating any changes.”

In the long run, Wednesday’s decision could help frequent fliers who have complained about blackout dates and other rules that limit the ways they can redeem their miles for tickets, said David Stempler, director of the International Airline Passengers Assn. Airlines may be discouraged from making those kinds of changes because of potential legal problems, he said.



Times staff writer David Savage contributed this report.