The Case Of Rabbi Dropped For Frequent Complaining

by , Dec 4, 2013, 7:43 AM
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Can an airline tell a customer to go take a flying leap — figuratively, of course — because it thinks he’s gaming the system or complaining too much? The Supreme Court will decide.

In the eyes of Northwest Airlines, suburban Minneapolis Rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg apparently was a frequent flier who was more trouble than he was worth. Specifically, it appears, he had a penchant for making reservations on flights that were overbooked and then being one of those kind souls who volunteer for money-and-mileage compensation in return for putting up with wannabe Masters of the Universe jabbering on their cells and a lack of electrical outlets until the next flight departs.

One day in June 2008, Northwest — which at the time was preparing itself for a merger with Delta — told Ginsberg enough was enough, and it was deleting his name from its Platinum Elite list in the airline’s WorldPerks program, along with the hundreds of thousands of miles he had strung together since he attained the status in 2005. According to Ginsberg, the action was out of the blue. 

“If the airline had called me up and said, ‘You're too big of a headache for us, you obviously don't think we're a good airline, why don't you fly with someone else,’ I probably could have understood that,” Ginsberg, 52, tells the Wall Street Journal’s Jess Bravin.

“Ginsberg maintains he rarely complained and had no control over who would be bumped from an overbooked flight,” write Kevin Diaz and Paul Walsh in the Minneapolis StarTribune.

“It’s not like they ever called me and said, ‘You know, you’ve got to stop complaining,’” Ginsberg said. “I never complained on the plane or in the airport. I would call the next day. It was never like about too much salt on the peanuts or something like that.”

It was more along the lines of registering displeasure over “a lack of decency, courtesy, whatever” for incidents such as “if we sat on the tarmac for a few hours waiting for some notification of what happening,” Joseph Straw relates in the New York Daily News.

What’s more, when Ginsberg called Northwest’s legal department to inquire about the reasoning behind its decision, he was informed that his wife’s Platinum Elite status was also being revoked. “Ginsberg said the way he and his wife have been treated is nothing short of ‘un-American,’ Diaz and Walsh write.

Northwest also sent Ginsberg a letter “noting he had made 24 complaints in the past eight months, including nine incidents of his bag arriving late at the luggage carousel, according to court papers,” CNN’s Bill Mears reports

“You have continually asked for compensation over and above our guidelines. We have awarded you $1,925 in travel credit vouchers, 78,500 WorldPerks bonus miles, a voucher extension for your son, and $491 in cash reimbursements,” the letter complained. “Due to our past generosity, we must respectfully advise that we will no longer be awarding you compensation each time you contact us.”

Ginsberg filed a suit against Northwest in January 2009, and the action has been wending a bumpy way through lower courts since then. But Northwest Inc. v. Ginsberg, No. 12-462 isn’t just about one man standing up for his frequent flier miles against those meanies at the airline. 

“The case stems from the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act law that prevents any lawsuits dealing with the ‘price, route or service of an air carrier,’” points out USA Today’s Bart Jansen. “A U.S. District Court had dismissed Ginsberg's case, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it could go forward with the dispute about whether the airline acted in good faith.”

The New York Times’ Adam Liptak writes that Justice Stephen G. Breyer “summarized the competing interests in the case before the court” thusly: “A free market in price is at the heart of the Deregulation Act,” Justice Breyer said, and “frequent flier programs are simply price discounts.” He added: “If you don’t have contracts, you can’t have free markets. But I also think the states cannot, under the guise of contract law, regulate the prices of airlines.”

A decision is due before the court recesses for the summer in June. 

“Most justices signaled they think that ruling for Ginsberg could give rise to state-by-state rules that the deregulation law was intended to prevent,” the AP’s Mark Sherman writes on TwinCities.com. 

But Justice Elena Kagan is among some justices who seem to be leaning the other way.

“If I knew that it was really up to you to give me the free ticket … I don't think that I'd be spending all this time in the air on your planes,” she said, the WSJ’s Bravin reports. “You know, I'd find another company that actually gave me the free ticket.”

Ginsberg, meanwhile, told CNN’s Mears: “I feel very proud taking on this battle. I'm doing this for you and I and everyone else in this country. I don't want anything, just give me back my miles. You took them, they're mine — give them back to me.”

Could be a movie.

11 comments on "The Case Of Rabbi Dropped For Frequent Complaining".

  1. Stan Valinski from Multi-Media Solutions Group
    commented on: December 4, 2013 at 9:02 a.m.
    I don't care if this guy is a Rabbi, garbage man or a US Congressman, he is the type of chronic abuser that makes it tough for those of us that have occasional legit complaints. His overkill and abuse of the system is being dealt with the RIGHT WAY by Northwest. These self-absorbed manipulators think they are smarter & better than everyone else...this is a good way to use business sense to discourage future abusers.
  2. Daniel Soschin from Speaker & Blogger
    commented on: December 4, 2013 at 9:05 a.m.
    Thom, I recently presented at a summit where one of my topics was "all customers are not created equal" and businesses should focus a disportionate amount of time on their good customers (and retaining/rewarding them) and less on the squeaky wheel. But, I am struggling to see how this gentleman's occupation has anything to do with the case? I was expecting to read about some sort of connection (yes, an airline pun), but apparently there was none. So is your headline a bit misleading then?
  3. Daniel Soschin from Speaker & Blogger
    commented on: December 4, 2013 at 9:06 a.m.
    *disproportionate (apologies for the typo!)
  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited
    commented on: December 4, 2013 at 9:53 a.m.
    Daniel is right. Would things change if he was a minister or a garbage collector ? What does it do with the story ? Odds have it, as we all know airlines, that some of those complaints are justified. Some of them are out of frustration and some are blowing in the wind. Certainly, the lack of competition in airlines and getting worse will make more complaints not taken care of and ignored. How many times can you not "choose" the airline when you are going from here to there and back or somewhere else ?
  5. Thom Forbes from T.H. Forbes Co.
    commented on: December 4, 2013 at 11:16 a.m.
    Points well taken. I should not have used "Rabbi" in the headline.
  6. Stan Valinski from Multi-Media Solutions Group
    commented on: December 4, 2013 at 11:40 a.m.
    However Thom, I have to ask myself: Would I have clicked on the story IF it didn't say Rabbi? Maybe not. Were we all thinking stereotypical thoughts?
  7. Thom Forbes from T.H. Forbes Co.
    commented on: December 4, 2013 at 12:26 p.m.
    Could be, Stan. I know I had “rabbi" on my mind this morning. I’d just read an email from a cousin that contained a sketch for a new gravestone for our great, great grandfather, a rabbi whose original stone in the Hebrew Rest Cemetery in New Orleans was badly damaged by Katrina. In any event, there are several interesting issues here, which is the reason I chose this story over, say, the uptick in auto sales last month. One is how the Supreme Court decides and the possible repercussions on airline pricing. Then there's the more far-reaching concept of which customers marketers should be focusing their attention on (within the law, of course) as you and Daniel suggest. All this against the backdrop of what Paula identifies as an increasingly concentrated industry (see AA and US Airways last week) in which the consumer has fewer choices. So, gaffe aside, at least we’ve got that conversation going ...
  8. Daniel Soschin from Speaker & Blogger
    commented on: December 4, 2013 at 1:11 p.m.
    As a society, we don't handle break ups well (personal or professional). I think the airline is within its rights to break up the relationship with the customer. "The cost of maintaining you as a customer is too great. So we are ending the relationship." That sort of statement, along with making good on already earned credits, seems appropriate. Revoking credits (even if the medium is miles), shouldn't be done. The customer should be offered options for redeeming the credits as part of the separation. I recall back having a couple of my credit cards closed by their respective banks without my request. I simply received a letter. I suppose this was the result of those accounts being idle. While I was taken back that my business was unwanted, I was realistic - I wasn't using those accounts. So after the initial surprise of the letter wore off, I shrugged it off -- I didn't need those accounts anyway, so I'm glad they were closed. But had I been more active, I would have been annoyed. Businesses need to learn how to break up better - because customers can become dangerous to a business's reputation, long after they cease being a customer.
  9. A Brody from TECHmarketing
    commented on: December 4, 2013 at 1:20 p.m.
    Anyone who can pluck money out of the sky is a holy man - regardless of his denomination. Anyone who stops him is well, the Devil. IMHO PS Anyone who lets their legal department get in the way of their marketing programs is an idiot for which neither heaven nor hell has an available seat.....
  10. Christina Ricucci from Millenia 3 Communications
    commented on: December 4, 2013 at 6:59 p.m.
    Fussing about the headline mentioning a rabbi is much ado about nothing IMO. If the man identifies himself as Rabbi Ginsberg, it's no different from Dr. Ginsberg, in which case headline could have said "the case of doctor" or Judge Ginsberg, in which case headline might have said "the case of Judge", or any one of a dozen other titles. Does it have anything to do with the story? Maybe, maybe not. Google the story and look at all the other headlines: "Supreme Court to weigh in on Rabbi's suit against airline"... "Supreme Court hears Rabbi's case against frequent flyer programs"..."Rabbi fails in bid to sue airline"... "Airline dumped Rabbi from perks program". It's just a title, a credential, a form of identification; I don't see any kind of statement inherent in using it in a headline. Beyond the headline issue, I hope the Court rules against Ginsberg. If the airline -- but not the customer -- is being judged on whether they "acted in good faith", how is that just? This customer is a chronic complainer who is not playing fair and square, and I think Northwest has been more than generous. I cannot count the number of times I have sat next to this kind of "me, me, me" customer on flights and thought "how do I always manage to find these people?" I had to grit my teeth at this man's statement that "I don't want anything". He wants plenty, including his 15 minutes of fame. All the way to the Supreme Court? Well, I guess even the 9 justices need something to laugh about at the dinner table. And it's not like we have any other abuses of power out there to worry about.
  11. Erik Sass from mediapostpublications
    commented on: December 5, 2013 at 3:11 p.m.
    I don't understand why the airline didn't simply flag his name/account with a note reading "stop giving this guy stuff." He'd either give up in frustration or finally make good on his threat to stop flying that airline -- which would have been fine by them, apparently.

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