Booted frequent flier gets no relief from Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court building in 2012.
The U.S. Supreme Court building in 2012.
(Karen Bleier / AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Airline customers complain about being mistreated on a daily basis, but Rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg took his grievance all of the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unfortunately for Ginsberg, the court sided with Northwest Airlines on Wednesday.

Ginsberg was not just a frequent flier with the airline, but also a frequent complainer. By 2008, Northwest declared it had lost patience with his protests and demands, and revoked his vaunted Platinum Elite membership.


Ginsberg was outraged. He charged the airline had broken its contract, and was jettisoning longtime customers as part of a cost-cutting move in anticipation of a merger with Delta Airlines.

But in a 9-0 ruling, the court held that the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 protects air carriers against such suits. The law was drafted to make the airlines more competitive, and in doing so, it shielded them from state laws and regulations that could affect heir pricing or dictate how they deliver service. As a result, the court found, the law gives airlines the authority to boot customers from their frequent flier programs at will.

DOCUMENT: The ruling in Northwest v. Ginsberg

The court also reasoned that passengers like Ginsberg can seek relief from the Department of Transportation, which has the authority to investigate frequent flier programs. Or, said the opinion, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., passengers “can avoid an airline with a poor reputation and possibly enroll in a more favorable rival program.”

In the case, Northwest had argued that it did not cavalierly boot Ginsberg from its Platinum Elite program. It submitted to the court the letter the airline sent Ginsberg in the summer of 2008.

“[Y]ou have contacted our office 24 times since December 3, 2007 regarding travel problems, including 9 incidents of your bag arriving late at the luggage carousel,” the letter said. It went on: “Since December 3, 2007, you have continually asked for compensation over and above our guidelines. We have awarded you $1,925.00 in travel credit vouchers, 78,500 WorldPerks bonus miles, a voucher extension for your son, and $491.00 in cash reimbursements.”

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