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University of Miami Study Says Airlines Don’t Deliver on Frequent Flier Promises; Next Stop Could Be Courty

 
Coral Gables, Fla.  – April 29, 2015
- A new study from the University of Miami School of Business Administration says many airlines do not deliver on the promise of their frequent flier programs and as a result travelers could make a strong case against them in court.  The study, published in American Business Law Journal, says that if in court, frequent flier mile contracts are viewed as contracts of “adhesion,” consumers could successfully sue the airlines for failing to deliver on their reasonable expectations about contract terms.

“We set out to determine, empirically, what the reasonable expectations of consumers are with regard to free flights because frequent flier contracts are written to favor the drafter, which is the airline,” said Ann Morales Olazábal, vice dean and professor of business law at the University of Miami School of Business.  “The programs’ terms and conditions, the small print, set up ‘take it or leave it’ contract language that allows airlines to dictate the limits on redemption of hard-earned miles, but that doesn’t give an airline leave to make redemption nearly impossible.  A court can and should use the reasonable expectations of the consumer to decide how to interpret contract obligations in such a case,” added Olazábal, who conducted the research with Howard Marmorstein and Dan Sarel, associate professors of marketing at the School.

In addition to studying the airlines’ policies – the researchers surveyed more than 450 travelers about their expectations for free tickets at the lowest award level (typically by redeeming 25,000 miles).  The findings show that more often than not, consumer expectations are unmet. On average, consumers expect to be able to redeem miles for a free flight more than half the time and 30% of them at least 75% of the time. 

According to consulting firm IdeaWorks, whose data was studied as part of this research, 2012 figures show that it’s more realistic to assume that consumers can redeem their miles or points for a free ticket at this lowest award level less than half or one-third of the time – American (45.7%); US Airways (33.6%); Delta Airlines (27.1 %). Further, among domestic legacy airlines, United Airlines was unique in delivering on a free ticket most of the time (80%).  

The study suggests that if reasonable consumer expectations are used as the standard, courts could find that three out of four domestic legacy airlines, including American Airlines, US Airways and Delta Airlines, are not meeting their frequent flier contractual obligations because they entice customers to target purchases with the promise of a free ticket and under-deliver when it comes to redeeming miles.   

“Consumer suits—perhaps class actions—may indeed be successful,” said Olazábal. “Also, the Department of Transportation might do well to consider our findings as it considers new regulations that are more protective of the flying public and, in particular, frequent flyers’ rights.”

NOTE TO EDITOR: A copy of the full research paper is available here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/enhanced/doi/10.1111/ablj.12026/

About the University of Miami School of Business Administration

The University of Miami School of Business Administration is a leader in preparing individuals and organizations to excel in the complex, dynamic, and interconnected world of global business. One of 12 schools and colleges at the University of Miami, the School offers undergraduate, master’s, doctoral, and executive education programs. With its location in a major center for international business, the School is acclaimed for its global perspective, student and faculty diversity, and engagement with the business community. More information about the University of Miami School of Business Administration can be found  at www.bus.miami.edu.

For more information please contact: 

Tracy Simon
University of Miami School of Business Administration
Tel: 267-679-2774
tsimon@bus.miami.edu

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