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Fed Up With Those Pesky Fees? Sue the Airline!

Have you had enough of those [% 2862142 | | airline fees %]? Sue the airline!

That’s what one frequent flyer is doing. And if he’s successful, his example could significantly change the way airlines operate their loyalty programs.

According to a report in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, David Simon has filed a class-action lawsuit in Cleveland District Court, seeking compensatory and punitive damages against Continental.

At issue: the price of frequent flyer awards in Continental’s OnePass program. Simon, the report explains, “tried to book a flight to Cleveland from Los Angeles in January using 25,000 frequent flyer miles, but the airline required him either to spend 50,000 miles or to pay a $75 fee for using another airline.”

I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t have access to the specifics included in the court documents. But the gist of his claim appears to be that he joined the program expecting a free ticket to be available at 25,000 miles, and Continental later changed the rules, imposing that $75 fee for awards issued on partner airlines.

While I’m sympathetic with the frustration and outrage fueling the suit, I do know that Continental—and all airlines, for that matter—has language in its terms and conditions that grants the right to change its programs at any time, for any reason. And by enrolling in a mileage program, consumers implicitly agree to those terms.

So at the very least, Mr. Simon would appear to be on the wrong side of the published rules.

But there’s a question at stake here that transcends the particulars embedded in the fine print: Can a company grant itself the right to treat its customers unfairly?

If the answer is no, Simon clearly has a case. If the answer is yes—if rules can subvert justice—then the plaintiff has a problem, and we have a legal system that needs an overhaul.

We’ll follow this case and let you know how it plays out.

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