Saturday, September 17, 2011
Service complaints pit Minneapolis rabbi against airline industry rights
Griping about airline service is commonplace. But one frequent flier says his frequent complaints cost him his mileage and perks.
Minneapolis rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg flew so often that he reached platinum frequent flier status, but one day in 2008 he got a call from Northwest Airlines that his status would be revoked. He said he lost mileage, too. The reason, he says: He complained too much.
His lawsuit against Northwest Airlines - now part of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines - could help determine what rights airline passengers have.
"All this individual did was complain about lousy service," Ginsberg's attorney, Thatcher Stone, said. "He did exactly what Delta and Northwest told him to do - call them up and complain when service was lousy."
Ginsberg said he believes that "if you have a problem with somebody's service, you should be able to complain politely and in a respectful manner....So many consumers have had issues with airlines and (airlines) have always taken the attitude that: 'We're untouchable.' "
A district court decided in favor of the airline, but that was reversed last month on appeal. Delta has asked for a re-hearing and the nation's largest airline industry association has weighed in.
At the heart of the case are two questions: Does an airline have a right to take away frequent fliers' status, membership and miles? And, because airlines are regulated by the federal government, when are airline passengers entitled to consumer protections
under state law?
Delta is not commenting on the case.
Northwest in a 2008 letter told Ginsberg he had contacted the airline's office 24 times in roughly seven months regarding travel problems, adding that he "continually asked for compensation" and already had been awarded nearly $2,000 in travel vouchers, 78,500 bonus miles and $491 in cash reimbursements. The letter also apologized for service issues.
In defending against the suit, the airline had argued that Ginsberg did not show any breach of contract and that the federal Airline Deregulation Act pre-empts state contract and consumer protection laws. The airline also claimed it had the right to terminate a frequent flier membership if it decided a member abused the program, and wasn't required to explain the decision.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the suit, saying deregulation "was never intended to preempt these types of disputes."
Ginsberg said his suit is about principle. He said his complaints, about everything from luggage arriving late on the baggage carousel to getting last-minute notifications of flight cancellations, were always made "quietly, politely, always over the phone."
These days, Ginsberg said he mostly flies other airlines.