The Case Of Rabbi Dropped For Frequent Complaining
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.