Man Has Airline Status Yanked for Refunding Tickets After Using Airport Lounges. Now He’s Suing

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.

This is the lawsuit that’s been filed (.pdf)

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.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Putting aside this particular case, who, and I ask this honestly, is so pathetic that they go through all this just to access an airport lounge?

  2. All of AC’s YVR lounges (trans order, domestic and international) are identical in offerings. If I wanted some nacho dust, bland salsa and some cheap wine, I would hit the domestic lounge. It’s the biggest and closest to the exit.

    There is something more to this story. I’ve been on numerous flights through YVR where I’ve had to change plans after clearing security (including US preclearance) and it’s annoying but standard AC procedure to handle.

  3. For the amount of flying that this guy does, why would AC even want to fight this fight? The few drinks and crappy food consumption seem to me to be not worth the result of this. I just don’t know why they didn’t turn the other way for such a high level customer (regardless of whether he did this intentionally, or not).

  4. My thought exactly, it sounds like he does fly 150 real segments, so why rock the boat with it. Now you give every Tom, Dick, and Harry an idea of what they could do, especially if the news media picks up on the lawsuit.
    Past: Only a guru would know about this “trick” of eating/drinking for free and refunding the tickets;
    Now (because AC rocked Boat): A lot of people might get the idea to do what this man did, and 99% may not have status or care if they revoke status. It may even give people “ideas,” of what they could try at home well beyond Air Canada!e

  5. I’m not saying that this guy is one of them… But there are certainly a lot of people who try and “game” the system… Even some of the readers and writers of this site… However, some people go beyond gaming the system and abuse it…

    I would say, I would never go to the airport just to visit a lounge… much less purchase a ticket to just visit a lounge… But I’m SURE there are a lot of people who would… and do

    … I would also like to add, I’ve been in lounges before where certain issues came up where I canceled or changed my trip… I’ve canceled trips because the weather or even predictions for the return flight looked bad… I’ve canceled trips because of minor aircraft mainteince… I’ve canceled trips because I was too tired to fly or was in a bad mood… The more someone flies, the more often they are going to cancel.

  6. Air Canada can do this pretty much with impunity as it is really the only loyalty game in town. A super duper elite with Westjet gets . . . more flying on Westjet

  7. AC is a formerly state-owned airline with little domestic competition. So you basically get the worst of both worlds, and the resulting hubris reflects that. For example, the Canadian military lost refueling rights in the UAE to support their missions in Afghanistan all because AC didn’t want competition from the Gulf carriers.

  8. @Stannis: Clarification and Opinion: AC may have been state-owned and supported through the mid-70’s, limped through the 80s (with minimal financial support), but was fully privatized in 1988/1989. Much like a US major, they have substantial competition in every market they compete in except for some very thin domestic routes. (Porter/WestJet/UA/BA/JAL/Cathay/Iberia etc.) While Canadian’s will often (and reserve the right) to call them the ‘Evil Empire’, AC is a very well run and profitable airline. AC has some broken customer service systems and process, and the Canadian federal government did muck up the UAE negotiations, but AC definitely doesn’t suffer any ‘state-owned’ hang-over anymore.

  9. How does Air Canada have a case? They set the conditions of the Super Elite loyalty program without any thought- they just have to comply with the conditions of the program. Their lead manager of the Super Elite program that is who they should fire for incompetence that costs the company money. .

  10. I don’t think it is as simple as saying that AC can do as they please with their program. Air Canada uses these benefits to promote their business: you are promised that if you fly enough with them you’ll get some perks. They don’t say “fly a lot with us, and we might consider giving you some benefits, that we may take away as we please”. So it’s false advertising, at least.

  11. Anyone who has such a compulsion to game the AC lounge network to this extent needs to avail himself to Canada’s wonderful free mental heath care system.

  12. This is all due to US pre-clearance, and the airline fearing punishment by the US government for the fact that the passenger had already been through US customs and immigration at Vancouver Airport but then never arrived.

    I’m not surprised that the airline decided that it couldn’t afford to allow this passenger to make future bookings.

    Don’t forget, the US government recently cited “security” reasons for levying tariffs on Canadian trade. So it seems unsurprising that Air Canada is anxious not to carry passengers whose failure to arrive in the USA after clearing US immigration and customs might trigger alarms.

  13. @Boston: Exactly. You are one of the few commenters who grasped this. He spends so much money with AC that his practise of buying, then cancelling, premium tickets is a behavioral quirk, not an abuse. The other commentators are talking about the other cases that Gary described.

  14. @DavidF: The passenger in the original article was travelling Internationally, not Trans-Border. Even if he was travelling to the US, the CBP wouldn’t be punishing AC or would there be any fear; AC, and other airlines regularly cancel and reschedule Trans-Border flights that customers often request (or require because they are now flying initially domestic) to re-clear into Canada. (Ignoring the ‘security’ and tariff comments.. no need for a political flame war. 😉 )

    As a regular YVR (domestic,transborder, intl) AC MLL customer; I know the intl. lounge is often staffed by one agent. To get re-ingested into Canada from that lounge would require calling another AC agent to escort the customer — and it could be a long walk to Canadian immigration depending on the current config of the gates. The agent probably told the customer to wait while another XX minutes, a kerfufell ensued and a grumpy agent took revenge, and AC is left defending their employee.

  15. If I read this correctly he was buying full fare tickets, the extra money he spent on the 150 + tickets he actually used is enormous !! He could have easily bought a new BMW. So I agree AC was completely wrong in this action. He had spent a lot of cash and earned his status..
    When AC was in bankruptcy they were a much better airline, now they are becoming more like United Airlines, and their horrible customer service.
    I am a Super Elite, and I am disappointed more and more every year by AC.
    I used to brag about AC, that stopped 5 yrs ago. Almost makes a guy want to fly BA ;-(

  16. … if you hold an American Express card ….. you can purchase a lounge access for your flight.

  17. Any Super Elite would never game the system just to enter an AC lounge. The food is crap and they are small.

    An Asian airline lounge maybe, those are so much nicer but I highly doubt it. I loved being SE but with the increased requirements, it’s just not worth it anymore.

    Now I fly whoever I want and the money saved by not chasing miles gives me freedom to do so many other things. It saves me money and saves my company money.

  18. Not sure about that airport, but anyone who wants to fight traffic and pay through the nose for parking, then suffer the long walk in and through security, to access any lounge in LAX has earned it, and definitely needs a mental evaluation.

  19. Not sure about that Vancouver or Xian airport, but anyone who wants to fight traffic and pay through the nose for parking, then suffer the long walk in and through security, to access any lounge in LAX has earned it, and definitely needs a mental evaluation.

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