A lifetime of loyalty, erased in a second

Loyalty. It ain’t what it used to be.

Just ask someone like Daphne Gemmill, a lifelong US Airways frequent flier whose allegiance to the company goes all the way back to its predecessor, the old Piedmont Airlines.

“With the merger of US Airways and American, I thought my combined lifetime miles might put me in the million-mile category,” says Gemmill, a retired federal government employee. (Million-milers get VIP treatment, a coveted perk for passengers.) So she logged into her account, only to find her “lifetime” miles were gone — voided because of “inactivity” on her account.

“Guess those miles aren’t really lifetime miles, since I’m still alive,” she sighed.

Loyalty program defenders, allow me to read your minds: Gemmill should have familiarized herself with the fine print, which said her points would expire if she was inactive. Granted. I don’t have a problem with anyone reviewing the terms and conditions, but for cryin’ out loud, don’t tell your customers they have “lifetime” miles.

Travel companies, and particularly airlines, are pulling an unconscionable scam by redefining basic terms such as “lifetime” and “free” and “loyalty” to mean something they clearly do not. They’re alienating some of their best customers and giving consumer advocates like me a big headache.

Gemmill gave US Airways’ predecessor almost all of her business, starting in the 1960s, before loyalty programs even existed. The promise of a “lifetime” mileage bonus was something offered by the airline as a “thank you” for her business, which seemed reasonable.

In retrospect, she says, the least it could have done was tell her the “lifetime” awards were about to expire.

“Had I known that I was going to lose my lifetime miles, I would have put a flight a year on my US Airways account,” she says.

Loyalty apologists will probably say she didn’t know how to “play the game,” but I don’t think she saw this as a hobby. It was more like a marriage that fell apart. How can you not take something like that personally?

Your “lifetime” club membership is dead

Creative definitions of “lifetime” aren’t limited to airline loyalty programs. Consider the maddening case of Russell Posner, who bought a “lifetime” membership to Eastern Airlines’ Ionosphere Club in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in the mid-1980s, when he was a frequent business traveler. Of course, Eastern went belly-up, and most its assets were purchased by Continental Airlines before it merged with United Airlines.

Would United honor the “lifetime” membership he’d purchased from Eastern? After all, United was honoring old Pan Am Clipper Club memberships.

I suggested he send a brief, polite request to United.

It offered the following response:

When Eastern Airlines quit flying on midnight of January 19, 1991, they essentially closed the airline. Prior to that they had sold off small portions of their routings and Continental did take over some of their routes.

The Ionosphere Club was still operated by Eastern Airlines up until the time they stopped operating.

Since Continental did not take over the Ionosphere Clubs, we did not have access to their membership records. Therefore at the time of Eastern Airlines closing, Continental was not transferring any of Eastern’s Ionosphere Club memberships into Presidents Club memberships.

With all of the aforementioned information, we can not give you a Lifetime United Club membership.

In other words, the “lifetime” Eastern was referring to wasn’t his, but the lifetime of the company.

Oh, please.

By the way, I’ve seen this definition used even more creatively, when a well-known hotel company endured a leveraged buyout and nullified its lifetime elites. It claimed the lifetime was the company’s, but it didn’t really have to say anything. Under the terms of its program, it could do whatever it wanted.

Gone in less than 60 seconds

So what’s the lesson here? Don’t participate in a loyalty program? Don’t believe anything an airline tells you? Just stay home next time?

Maybe, but I think these stories about a lifetime of loyalty lost say much more about corporate ethics in the 21st century, or more to the point, the lack of ethics. When you refer to a benefit as “lifetime” or to a ticket as “free,” you shouldn’t have to qualify it, and if you do, and you come up with the wrong definition, perhaps we need government regulators to step in and ensure you’re not ripping us off.

I’m not a big fan of any government telling me what to do, but laissez-faire regulation shouldn’t be interpreted as a license to rewrite the dictionary.

Careful about which company you give your loyalty to, my friends. Because the loyalty you give may not always be the loyalty you get.

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