Lawsuit claims United is shorting frequent flyers on mileage credit


Another lawsuit has fallen in the lap of United Airlines and their MileagePlus frequent flyer program. This time around it is not based on elite benefits but on claims that passengers are not begin credited with the proper number of points per their contract with the company. And, I must admit, what I saw when I actually read the filing surprised me quite a bit, mostly because the claimant missed the opportunity to go after what is likely a legitimate data set and instead went with one of the more ridiculous claims I’ve heard in a while.

Hongbo Han has filed a class action claim in Illinois suggesting that the airline is shorting customers because they are credited only with the nominal point-to-point distances between two cities rather than with the actual miles flown on any given flight. Han claims that this approach violates the terms of the contract with Mileage Plus because:

Nowhere in the MileagePlus Program Rules does United state that mileage or miles credited are not actual miles flown by the member. Clause 18.1 of the MileagePlus Program Rules merely states that "[i]n the case of air travel, mileage will only be credited for flights actually flown by the member."

The filing includes a number of Beijing – Dulles flight details, noting that United routinely awards 6,920 miles for that routing despite the actual flight routing being more than that. Han’s complaint details the actual miles flown on his travel dates and suggests that United owes him those miles, plus the 25% bonus on those extra miles due to his "Premier status."

Han does acknowledge that the awarded flight miles are determined by the "purchased ticket routing" which does not necessarily match the flown aircraft routing, so it is not entirely clear that there is much of a case here, but I suppose we’ll see. The part where Han cites a USA Today "article" about points as supporting his claim through selectively quoting the content out of context also probably isn’t going to help the case.

What is most surprising to me is that Han took the rather less certain claim in filing the case, ignoring that the number of miles credited often is actually less than the distance between the airports even on the most ideal routing. The IAD-PEK flight he mentions several times in the claim only earns 6,920 points. But the distance between the two airports is actually 6,921 according to the most commonly accepted formula for calculating the distance between two points on a spheroid of the earth’s dimensions. Newark to Hong Kong is 8,065 miles. United even knows that:

image

And yet they routinely only ever award 8,060 miles for the trip.

There was some outrage a year ago when the points credited for each city pair changed, mostly to lower numbers. United at the time claimed that the issue was related to differing data sets and calculation methods. Ultimately they simply backed off the changes. But that seems a much more likely case of being able to actually win a claim against the company than the suggestion that actual flight miles should be used.

To be fair, I was pretty drunk on a flight back in October 2007 and during the time we spent circling over Virginia and Pennsylvania waiting to land in Newark I wrote an open letter to Continental asking to earn the points actually flown rather than just the point-to-point distance. But I also was joking. This guy filed a class-action lawsuit over basically the same thing.

We’ll see where this one ends up, but I have a feeling it won’t be in Han’s favor.

A copy of the filing can be found here.

UPDATE: It seems that United isn’t the only carrier facing this challenge. US Airways and Delta were served with nearly identical suits (citing the same USA Today story and basically just search/replace on the other salient details) as well.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

15 Comments

  1. his complaint is meaningless because that would mean UA awarding different mileage every single day on the same flight because of the routing changes of that day.

    if he think that’s an issue, try looking at “direct flights” – those REALLY short change you the miles. A single flight number for JFK-SFO-LAS (nearly 3000 miles inc 500 min) would end up only with ~2200 miles because it’s a “direct” flight so direct mileage is used.

  2. also, if a plane had to circle a few times before landing due to ATC congestion, wouldn’t his argument make him claim that he’s due those miles too ?

  3. I flew HKG-EWR and it came up on the monitor at a little over 9,250 miles, have pictures, would love the real mileage on that one instead.

  4. Aren’t you all forgetting the aircraft has to fly a “great circle arc” and therefore, taking into account the arc distance is always more than the distance across the ground –even if only because the arc is made at a higher altitude and therefore greater distance from the earth which results in a longer arc……yaddah yaddah yaddah. Then there’s the extra 7 miles to get to alititude…but I guess that’s countered on desecent…hmmm.

  5. I was on a flight that incurred a circle-pattern over EWR a few years ago and asked Continental for the actual miles flown instead of the miles given…I figured I was owed a few hundred miles…and was probably just as highly-catered 😮 …and found out quickly that you get what they give and nothing more. 🙂

  6. Apparently this flyer thinks that pilots have an odometer in the cockpit… Does he also want credit for taxiing distance too?

  7. I wonder if these are done mainly to get the airlines to settle with some frequent flyer miles thrown in to get them to go away before they waste any more legal dept time?

    I wonder what happened to that lawsuit filed by several prominent people of this community about that shopping incident that they were “tricked” out of gazillion miles? 🙂 It would be nice to have a webpage keeping track of these lawsuits & eventual results. Then again, if they are all settled out before trial, we may never know…

    1. To the best of my knowledge the Cartera suit you’re referring to hasn’t been resolved yet. I keep my ear to the ground so I’m pretty confident I’ll know when that one wraps up.

      I have no doubt that this sort of case is filed hoping for a settlement. The fact that three identical cases were filed against three airlines on the same day says to me that the lawyers, not the passengers, were seeking them out. They get a nice payday if they can convince a jury that the airlines are evil based on a horribly written “article” in USA Today online.

  8. These lawsuits are nonsense and are probably quite damaging to the frequent flyer community in the long run, even if a few greedy types do get some sort of settlement. I would say give the jerk five more miles for each Beijing-Dulles flight he’s paid cash for and be done with it.

  9. @DaveS
    I agree with most of it, but settling with the guy sets a bad precedent. Countersue for legal fees and be done with it.

  10. @Kris Ziel
    You’re probably right, of course, about the precedent. I was just thinking that even if he’s made a dozen such trips, his brand new 60 miles would be worth about $1.

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