An Air Canada Super Elite who takes over 150 flights a year says his business travel plans change often. Air Canada says he books refundable tickets, uses their lounges, and then cancels his tickets on days he never intends to fly at all.
If you’re near the airport and have lounge access you may think it’s just a free pub with bar snacks. But Air Canada and this frequent flyer are now locked in a legal battle that would never even exist in the United States.
Customers Can Get In Trouble Bending Rules to Visit Lounges Too Frequently
In 2014 the story went viral about a man who ate free for a year buying a refundable ticket, accessing the China Eastern lounge in Xi’an, China, and the refunding his ticket. Every. Day.
The same year Lufthansa sued a passenger and won 200 euros after the man booked and cancelled 36 tickets in a year for the purpose of obtaining business class lounge access.
Two years ago a man was arrested after living in 9 different Priority Pass lounges at the Singapore airport over the course of 3 weeks.
Singapore Changi Airport
It’s one thing to meet someone at the gate by buying a refundable ticket to get past security, or even buying a first class ticket and refunding it when you’re traveling in order to access the first class lounge. You’re not supposed to do it, but I’ve never heard of stories like this about someone that does it once. It’s always someone that’s gone to extremes.
An Air Canada Super Elite Had His Status Revoked, Now He’s Suing
Eric Wong was a huge Air Canada customer. A Super Elite member since 2012, he says he uses his elite benefit of making last minute economy full fare bookings even on sold out flights. He was a very frequent flying and chased promotions — he even says he placed first in years 1, 3, and 4 of the Earn Your Wings bonus offer earning as much as a million bonus miles at a time.
But since his business travel needs changed all the time, and he was likely to scrap last minute tickets, he booked premium fares and ensured they were refundable.
In 2015 he reports that he made several trips to the airport only to turn around and cancel his trip as his plans changed, often after he was already in the lounge waiting for his flight. He says he flew 150 Star Alliance segments that year.
In January 2016, though, when he decided while in the lounge at the Vancouver airport to cancel his trip he ran into problems. He asked for an escort to arrivals since he was in the international departures area of the airport. The Maple Leaf Lounge agent said he needed to wait until finishing to investigate his ‘abuse’.
- Eventually he was permitted to leave but about 10 days later he was informed that his top tier elite status was suspending pending an investigation.
- The airline claimed he “cleared security and accessed the international or transborder sterile areas of the airport, possibly, without the purpose of traveling on that day.”
- Air Canada wanted Mr. Wong to explain his reasons for cancelling his tickets.
- He refuses, citing the airline’s tariff (allowing cancellation of refundable tickets) and that they advertise such fares entail full refunds “no questions asked.”
Since This Happened in 2015-2016 He Wasn’t Even Trying to Get Into the Air Canada Signature Suite
Air Canada did provide promised refunds, though, no questions asked. They asked the questions with respect to his continued membership in their elite program.
So why seek damages?
- His miles are worth less because he lacks status
- He has to spend more on tickets to obtain the flexibility afforded by his status
- He’s lost the benefits of his status and can no longer participate in future promotions
- He’s felt awkward at the extra scrutiny he says he’s received as he continues to fly Air Canada and especially entering Air Canada lounges.
Here’s a man who wanted into an American Airlines Admirals Club in Charlotte that had closed way too much.
I Doubt He’ll Win – But in the US There Wouldn’t Even Be a Suit
In the U.S. such a suit would go nowhere. The Supreme Court’s Northwest v. Ginsberg was precisely about a Platinum elite whose account was terminated for abusing the airline’s compensation system (he complained too frequently and got compensation for each one, the airline finally fired him as a customer). The court ruled that frequent flyer programs are rebates on the price of air travel, and that no state can regulate the price of airline tickets under the Airline Deregulation Act. As a result a state contracts claim focused on ‘good faith and fair dealing’ is invalid, customers can only sue for actual direct violation of a program’s terms and conditions.
That’s not how frequent flyer programs work of course. Most miles aren’t earned for flying, and miles are often spent for things other than flying. However this was a spectacularly bad case that was poorly argued in the lower courts, and we now suffer the consequences. The Court leaves our only avenue of redress against programs as the Department of Transportation, which acknowledges that it improperly ignores complaints about frequent flyer programs.
Now American AAdvantage’s terms and conditions have been revised to explicitly say they do not have to deal fairly or in good faith with customers.
In Canada at least they get a bite at the apple. However I suspect that Air Canada is within its rights to suspend elite benefits (though not to refuse refund) for tickets they believe were booked for the purpose of obtaining lounge access or going airside in an airport without intent to fly.
(HT: Ryan H.)