WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court indicated Tuesday it won't offer much help to frequent fliers who want to sue when airlines revoke their miles.
Justices heard the case of a Minnesota rabbi stripped of his top-level "platinum elite" status in Northwest's WorldPerks program because the airline said he complained too much.
Rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg said Northwest, since absorbed by Delta Air Lines Inc., did not act in good faith when it cut him off. The airline says the federal deregulation of the airline industry in 1978 rules out most lawsuits like the one filed by Ginsberg.
Most justices signaled they thought ruling for Ginsberg could give rise to state-by-state rules that the deregulation law was intended to prevent.
Ginsberg said in court papers that he and his wife flew almost exclusively on Northwest, logging roughly 75 flights a year to travel across the country and abroad to give lectures and take part in conferences.
He said he flew on Northwest even when other airlines offered comparable or better flights and in 2005 reached the highest level of the WorldPerks program.
Northwest cut him off in 2008, after Northwest and Delta agreed to merge. Ginsberg said the move was a cost-cutting measure.
Northwest says he complained 24 times in seven months. It said that before it took action, it awarded Ginsberg $1,925 in credit vouchers and 78,500 bonus miles.
The airline pointed to a provision of the mileage program's terms that gives Northwest the right to cancel members' accounts for abuse.
A federal trial judge cited earlier Supreme Court cases involving claims against frequent-flier programs in dismissing the suit, including the claim that Northwest did not live up to terms of the contract. The judge said the contract gives the airlines the right to kick someone out of the mileage program at its "sole judgment."
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco said part of the suit could go forward involving whether Ginsberg and others can sue under state laws that require parties to a contract to act in good faith.
Justice Elena Kagan showed some sympathy for Ginsberg's claim when she questioned lawyer Paul Clement, representing Northwest at the Supreme Court.
If the airline could easily avoid living up to its end of the bargain in the mileage program, Kagan said: "I don't think that I'd be spending all this time in the air on your planes. You know, I'd find another company that actually gave me the free ticket."
Clement said that shows the free market, not a court, is the right place to address her problem.