Monday, May 12, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
The United States Supreme Court recently held that airlines are allowed to revoke the membership of those of their frequent flyers who complain “too much” about the airline’s services (see Northwest v. Ginsberg). Contracts ProfBlog first wrote about the case on April 3.
In the case, Northwest Airlines claimed that it removed one of its Platinum Elite customers from the program because the customer had complained 24 times over a span of approximately half a year about such alleged problems as luggage arriving “late” at the carousel. The company also stated that the customer had asked for and received compensation “over and above” the company guidelines such as almost $2,000 in travel vouchers, $500 in cash reimbursements, and additional miles. According to the company, this was an “abuse” of the frequent flyer agreement, thus giving the company the sole discretion to exclude the customer. The customer said that the real reason for his removal from the program was that the airline wanted to cut costs ahead of the then-upcoming merger with Delta Airlines. He filed suit claiming breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in his contract with Northwest Airlines.
The Court found that state law claims for breaches of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing are pre-empted by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 if the claims seek to enlarge the contractual relations between airlines and their frequent flyers rather than simply seeking to hold parties to their actual agreement. The covenant is thus pre-empted whenever it seeks to implement “community standards of decency, fairness, or reasonableness” which, apparently, go above and beyond what airlines promise to their customers.
Really? Does this mean that airlines can repeatedly behave in indecent ways towards frequent flyer programs members (and others), but if the members repeatedly complain, they – the customers – “abuse” the contractual relationship?!.. The opinion may at first blush read as such and have that somewhat chilling effect. However, the Court also pointed out that passengers may still seek relief from the Department of Transportation, which has the authority to investigate contracts between airlines and passengers.
The unanimous opinion authored by J. Alito also stated that passengers can simply “avoid an airline with a poor reputation and possibly enroll in a more favorable rival program.” These days, that may be hard to do. First, most airlines appear to have more or less similar frequent flyer programs. Second, what airline these days has a truly “good” reputation? Granted, some are better than others, but when picking one’s air carrier, it sometimes seems like choosing between pest and cholera.
One example is the airlines’ highly restrictive change-of-ticket rules in relation to economy airfare, which seem almost unconscionable. I have flown Delta Airlines almost exclusively for almost two decades on numerous trips to Europe for family and business purposes. A few times, I have had the good fortune to fly first or business class, but most times, I fly economy. Until recently, it was possible to change one’s economy fare in return for a relatively hefty “change fee” of around $200 and “the increase, if any, in the fare.” - Guess what, the fares always had increased the times I asked for a change. Recently, I sought to change a ticket that I had bought for my elderly mother, also using KLM (which codeshares with Delta) as my mother is also frequent flyer with Delta. I was told that it was impossible to change the ticket as it was “deeply discounted.” I had shopped extensively online for the ticket, which was within very close range (actually slightly more expensive than that of Delta’s competitors. I asked the company what my mother could do in this situation, but was told that all she could do was to “throw out the ticket (worth around $900) and buy another one.” Remember that these days, airfare often has to be bought months ahead of time to get the best prices. In the meantime, life happens. Unexpected, yet important events come about. Changes to airline tickets should be realistically feasible, but are currently not on these conditions.
What airlines and regulators seem to forget in times of “freedom of contracting and market forces” is that some of us do not have large business budgets or fly only to go on a (rare, in this country) vacation. My mother is elderly and lives in Europe. I need to perform elder care on another continent and need flights for that purpose just as much as others need bus or train services. Such is life in a globalized world for many of us. In some nations, airlines feature at least quasi-governmental aspects and are much more heavily regulated than in the United States. Here, airfare seems to be increasing rapidly while the middle (and lower) incomes are more or less stagnant currently. I understand and appreciate the benefits of a free marketplace, but a few more regulations seem warranted in today’s economy. It should be possible to, for example, do something as simple as to change a date on a ticket (if, of course, seats are still available at the same price and by paying a realistic change fee) without having to buy extravagantly expensive first class or other types of “changeable” tickets.
Other “abuses” also seem to be conducted by airlines towards their passengers and not vice versa. For example, if one faces a death in the family, forget about the “grievance” airfares that you may think exist. Two years ago, my father was passing and I was called to his deathbed. Not having had the exact date at hand months earlier, I had to buy a ticket last minute (that’s usually how it goes in situations like that, I think…). The airline – a large American carrier - charged a very large amount for the ticket, but attempted to justify this with the fact that that ticket was “changeable” when, ironically, I did not need it to be as I needed to leave within a few hours.
In the United States, “market forces” are said to dictate the pricing of airfare. In Europe, some discount airlines fly for much lower prices than in the United States (think round-trip from northern to southern Europe for around $20 plus tax, albeit to smaller airports at off hours). Strange, since both markets are capitalist and offer freedom of contracting. Of course, these discount airlines also feature various fees driving up their prices somewhat, although not nearly as much as in the United States. A few years back, one discount European airline even announced that it planned to charge a few dollars for its passengers to use … the in-flight restrooms. Under heavy criticism, that plan was soon given up. In the United States, some airlines seem to be asking for legal trouble because of their lopsided business strategies. Sure, companies of course have to remain profitable, but when many of them claim in their marketing materials to be “family-oriented” and “focused on the needs of their passengers,” it would be nice if they would more thoroughly consider what that means.