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.

Who benefits more from a loyalty program?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Alan Gore

    Yet another example of a one-way contract. “Lifetime” is not the only word being creatively redefined here.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Lifetime is a fair critique. However, it’s an issue with business in general, not specific to travel. Lifetime contracts are often for the lifetime of the product, whatever that means.

    To be fair to the business though, if a company goes belly-up it is unreasonable to expect the purchaser of its assets to take over its liabilities. It’s better for society that those assets are purchased by someone who can make good use, i.e. create jobs, provide services, rather than have those assets fall into disuse.

    In the example cited, if United is not taking over the Ionosphere club, i.e. not getting the benefit of the annual membership fees paid, alcohol sales, etc., why should it incur the liabilities?

  • Richard

    Hold on a second. Are we talking about miles in an account (“points”) which bring no privelege beyond the usability of the points; or, are we talking about accrued miles “flown”, which can lead to lifetime “elite” status.

    In many cases the two are equal, but not always. For example many airlines award triple miles for 1st class but the accrued lifetime miles would still be the actual miles flown.

    This is further confused because some airlines say their miles never expire, I.e. Lifetime miles.

    If the OP had miles in her accounts at AA and USAir and they were supposed to never expire, then she should get credit for those miles with the new AA.

    However, I suspect we have some basic misunderstanding of terms here on the OP’s part.

    FWIW I agree with Carver Clark Farrow on the transfer of obligation from a failed business. Clubs are usually a separate business from the airline. CO purchased SOME of EA’s assets

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I’m going to guess that they were miles to be used for redemption, not elite qualifying miles. While not always, a discussion of lost miles tends to be redemption miles.

  • Richard

    I would agree. But, there usually no special award for building up a balance of a million miles in an account. The million mile award is almost always for flown miles.

  • Cybrsk8r

    But they are getting benefits. They’re getting all the customers, probably high revenue business flyers, who would be much more likely to fly United than some other carrier. Now I guess if United wants to cut all those customers loose to go to another airline, that’s their choice, but it seems like a pretty stupid move to me. Mr. Posner is now much more likely to fly with someone else.

    As to the issue of a business assuming liabilities, it happens all the time. When one bank buys out another, it not only gains that bank’s assets (deposits), but also it’s liabilities (bad loans). Did we learn nothing during the finacial collapse?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    According to the article United did not take over the Ionosphere Club nor did they receive the membership list.

    As far as business liabilities there are two way to buy a business. You can just purchase some or all of assets or you can purchase the entire business including such items as goodwill. If you are just purchasing the assets you do not assume the liabilities,except the liabilities that are associated with that asset.

    By contrast, when JP Morgan Chase took over Washington Mutual, it was a total takeover, assets and liabilities. Or more recently, the merger between US Air and American.

    According to the article, it appears that United purchased portions of Eastern (Some routes for example), not the entire airline. Accordingly, United would not be responsible for Ionosphere Club liabilities.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    American Airlines unofficial million mile status for for total miles accrued, including bonus miles, purchased miles, etc. I’m sure there were a few exceptions, but basically, all miles accrued under the program were included. Alas, they have made it more restrictive as of last year.


    I do not think the US Airways “lifetime” miles should have expired. But to say UA is not treating Mr. Posner right because they are not honoring a membership from an airline that went out of business years ago is simply ridiculous. The post does not mention if CO airlines honored his membership. But based on the letter from United I would say it did not–as CO did not have the membership information to give over to UA. That has nothing to do with loyalty whatsoever. You want UA to show loyalty to someone who was actually loyal to another airline, one that went out of business long before UA acquired an airline that had acquired some of the defunct carriers assets. Even for haters of loyalty programs that is stretching it a bit too far.

  • Mikael Mik

    Continental’s commitment to Eastern’s customers depends upon the terms of their buyout agreement. Suggest the OP research the terms and find out if he’s being sold a line of B.S. or the truth.

    Lifetime is always the life of company, unless bought out, and X honors. Say you buy a stove from Maytag, and Maytag closes, well no one will honor the warranty. Why it pays to try do patronize longstanding companies.

    OP with 1 million miles probably can appeal with polite email and get reinstated. Don’t see her case as being a dead end yet.

    Ultimately, mile running or accumulation is like the stock market or Vegas. Betting against the house at times and playing shareholder with the winnings. Loyalty works best when you’re spending money already and points don’t cause much altering of habit.

  • Mikael Mik

    I think you make two different arguments.

    1) I agree that Continental’s position hinges upon their buyout agreement of Eastern on whether debts and assets are honored.

    2). Continental does not get the money from the Ionsphere club, but might receive a highly prized list of valued customers that participated. At the very least, charging these customers a reduced or continuation fee appears conscieneable. After all, these folks spend and are loyal. The loyalty might negate the fee if Continental converted Eastern customers to their customers.

  • sirwired

    I don’t get the Eastern Airlines gripe at all… a quick perusal of Wikipedia shows that some parts of the airline were sold to Donald Trump, other parts to Continental, and yet more bits soldiered on until the whole thing went belly-up.

    I don’t think anyone would reasonably expect Continental to have anything to do with Eastern’s club; I doubt they were even ALLOWED to touch it since Eastern was still in operation at the time some bits of the airline were sold to Continental.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Either way, United lost Mr Posner as a customer, probably forever.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Customer loyalty programs are a total waste of my time. I will NEVER, repeat, NEVER, join an airline loyalty program.

  • MarkKelling

    Eastern went out of business over 20 years ago and the customer is just now asking about a club membership??? The time to have done that was when Eastern went out of business and CO was flying some of its routes – 20 years ago!

    Airlines want active frequent flyers. If you don’t fly even one trip a year you can’t be considered a frequent flyer by anyone’s definition, and what is the benefit to the airline to keep you on its books? And if you don’t fly, what is the benefit to you to be in the special high mileage group? When CO and UA merged, they did keep and merge all of the lifetime mileage counts which allowed a lot of people to enter the Million Mile group. But there was no need for them to do so, they could have reset everyone to zero. The new AA might be convinced to reinstate the lifetime mile count if asked. There is no indication that they were asked.

    Even the dead horse is begging for the beating to stop at this point.

  • MarkKelling

    How are they a waste of time if participating after sign up doesn’t take any time?

  • SoBeSparky

    A matter of semantics. “Lifetime” as used by the loyalty programs is the descriptor for the total miles/points earned in the accountholder’s lifetime, assuming one is eligible to have points. It never has implied the points last a lifetime. This is not a lifetime guarantee of mile availability. Never was.

    As a member of USAirways Dividend Miles, I used to get notices everytime I signed on as to when my miles would expire. That feature was recently dropped, perhaps with the merger.

    Dismissing the importance of rules is absurd, in the same way the rules would have been cited if they were in favor of the loyalty program member. Dividend Miles even sent me reminder emails on occasion telling me miles were going to expire. Rules are rules, especially when so frequently and prominently displayed by USAirways.

    More than once I used credits on other programs to have them transferred to Dividend Miles to keep my account active. This amounted to an additional 1,000 miles, insignificant really but for the extension of the validity of all the miles in the account.

    So where’s the beef? The rules are prominent, not fine print hidden under some asterisk.

  • jerryatric

    I agree! I simply get busy & spend the time ( I’m retired) looking for the best price, best connections. That’s it.
    By the way flew B.A from Vancouver (Canada) to Heathrow to Delhi & back. Great service in the air & on the ground. Great price too. NO I have nothing to do with BA, don’t even hold any of it’s stock.

  • omgstfualready


  • John Baker

    If I remember correctly, CO only bought portions of Eastern not the entire airline. In fact, Eastern operated for two years (89 to 91) under bankruptcy protection after the part was sold (given really) to CO.

    I’m not sure why CO would be on the hook for something Eastern sold?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    According to the letter, United did not receive the customer list. In any event, yes, it is two different questions. The first is a matter of ethics. As United did not take over Ionosphere club it bear no ethical obligation towards the membership. The second is whether that was a good business decision. Given that they had access to financials and I don’t, I’m not in a position to second guess their decision.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    It wouldn’t…

  • John Baker

    EA continued to operate (with its club) for two years after it sold (gave really) some of its assets to CO. Why should CO extend benefit to its club when the EA clubs weren’t part of the purchase?

    For a modern twist… For both the CO / UA & AA/US mergers, the combining airlines had to sell landing slots to competitors to get the ok. In each case, SW purchased the slots. This is basically what CO did with EA. If someone had purchased a lifetime membership to any of those 4 airlines clubs, should SW have to honor those memberships? I wouldn’t think so but your argument would say that it should.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I just re-read the article in daylight.

    The Ionosphere club closed no later than 1991. Continental did not transfer the membership rolls. Why is Mr. Posner complaining now, 20+ years later. Does that mean he hasn’t flown Continental or United) since 1991? It may be so as presumably he would have complained during a flight when he was denied access to Continental’s

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Probably. Although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, that’s the right business decision, both for the immediate situation as well as for the long term.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    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.


    Not to be mean, but what about the “ethics” of lumping items in the article that clearly have no affect on anything but pretending that they do? The point that Gemmill was flying Piedmont prior to the existence of frequent flyer programs is totally irrelevant, yet it’s included as if that should somehow mean something. Some of these people probably have a legitimate gripe, but it’s hard to get at the facts past all the anti-airline propaganda in the piece.

  • accountingforlove


  • DavidYoung2

    Nor is the term “All.” I joined a fitness club called Family Fitness Centers and paid extra for an “All Clubs” membership, which allowed me to use any club in their system. A few years later, FFC was bought by 24-hour Fitness, a mega-gym group. Suddenly, All Clubs didn’t mean ‘all clubs.’ I meant only their lowest level clubs, which accounted for about 20% of their total gym facilities.

    After years of arguing with them, somebody finally sued them, it went Class Action and guess what? Apparently “All Clubs” means all of them, not some of them. The lesson is that sometimes you have to force companies to do the right thing.

  • emanon256

    I have a friend who used to work for UA, and I remember her telling me that people call all the time trying to redeem their Life Time miles for free travel, and she tells them that it is simply a tally of actual miles flown, and they still think they can spend them to get award tickets and dont’ seem to get it. I wonder if that is the case with the OP, she confused life time miles with redeemable miles.

  • jim6555

    One fact that may be important to Mr. Posner’s case is that in the 1980’s, Eastern and Continental were under the same ownership (Frank Lorenzo) and while the two carriers never merged, they did combine their frequent flyer programs into a new program called One-Pass. Flyers with status in One-Pass could use the lounges of both carriers. I suspect that those who purchased a lifetime membership from one of the carriers was able to use the airport facilities of the other carrier.

  • Lindabator

    Actually – read even further – was Continental which bought out a portion of Eastern’s assets — after THEY merged with United, this guy NOW expects a 3rd party to honor something from a company that went belly up? He has no loyalty to this new airline, so why should they give him perks at their clubs???

  • Lindabator

    But according to the above, CO did NOT get this list. So how could United (the 3rd party on the line) get ANY benefit from a client like this?

  • Lindabator


  • omgstfualready

    I want to write to complain about my loyalty to reading a specific website that appears to have lost its way.

  • BillCCC

    You are correct, you read my mind. There is nothing more to say.

  • Gerald Halpern

    United is now canceling mileage, claiming the miles have “expired”, with no letter, no email, no communication, no notification. United members find out their miles have “expired” when they wish to use the mileage that United says one no longer has.

  • John Baker

    United is now canceling mileage, claiming the miles have “expired”, with no letter, no email, no communication, no notification

    You mean beyond the big words that say “Mileage Expiration” with the date under it that’s next to your Mileage Balance on the main united page when you’re logged in? Or the same thing on your account page once you logged in?

    Oh and its in the same font with the same size type as the balance… I’d say that would qualify as communication and notification. Especially since you have 18 months to use them….

  • Gerald Halpern

    Hope you are being compensated well by United. Or given the attitude you display, perhaps you just have nothing better to do with your time…


    I would think that would have been mentioned in the OP’s letter–if he had been allowed to use the Continental lounge based on his lifetime membership with Eastern before CO merged with United . Such a glaring omission tells me this did not happen.

  • BillCCC

    LOL, I have to agree with Mr Baker on this one. Your United account is quite clear as to when your miles will expire.

  • John Baker

    Thanks Bill…

  • Gerald Halpern

    I don’t agree, as few people visit the website until they are preparing to use their mileage. Thank you for demonstrating class and the kind of attitude that is appropriate for this forum. I doubt that anyone has ever accused Baker of proper behavior…

  • MarkKelling

    How long are people letting the miles sit unused? And why are they just letting them sit there? And if you have not had any activity on your mileage account, how is the airline supposed to know you are even still alive?

    It is easy to not lose your miles. Just do something, anything, at least once every 18 months that changes your mileage balance. You can subscribe to a magazine. You can donate a few miles to charity. Or how ’bout you purchase and actually fly one flight every year? You can also have any of the United branded credit cards, some even have no annual fee, and as long as that account is open your miles won’t expire. Or you can buy them back if you are too lazy to do any of the other things.

    And no, I am not paid by UA or any other airline.

  • Gerald Halpern

    Yet another with a little or no class, a poor attitude and, likely, too much time on his hands…

  • emanon256

    Not to mention the monthly statements also state when they will expire.

  • Mikael Mik

    Assuming that’s the case, OP is out of luck. Life is lifetime of Eastern unless a business assumed the program. Sucks but nothing lasts forever, even if advertised to be for life.

  • Gerald Halpern

    Don’t know anyone who receives monthly statements from United…The airlines does not want you have or use the points. United, in particular, will do anything to deprive customers of points and/or reduce the ability of consumers to use points.

  • Alan Gore

    Good outcome, but when companies pull such shenanigans, it’s generally because they know exactly how difficult it is for consumers to use standard legal channels in getting justice, even if the clickthrough contract you “signed” doesn’t freeze you out of the legal system entirely by imposing compulsory arbitration.

    For these reasons, today’s best offense is in more and more cases, Internet shaming through social media. One little video like “United Breaks Guitars” can get more done for customers than a hundred lawsuits.

  • emanon256

    I am not a fan of United, but I am also not a fan of people publicly bad mouthing a company for no reason whatsoever. I have gotten monthly statements from United since I signed up for Mileage Plus in the mid 80s. While United may be a far cry from a customer friendly airline, the mileage expiration date and balance info is one area where they actually do a good job, as is the mileage plus redemption process.

    ETA: If you had a problem with United, Chris can help you.

  • MarkKelling

    I agree that the airlines do not want anyone to use their points because when the customers do it costs the airline money.

  • whatup12

    Cant there be a third option for both the customer and company benefits equally? I know not a scientific assessment here, but giving people this option may increase the validity of the results…a little.

  • whatup12

    yep, but with status you could have showered between that long haul from Vancouver and next flight to delhi, eaten a nice snack, relaxed and emerged more ready for the next segment.

  • jerryatric

    I belong to a separate org. & for a small extra charge can use countless airport lounges, so don’t need points.

  • whatup12

    so the point you are making is that everyone has their loyalty programs…you just chose one that doesn’t rely on airlines. ie, priority pass, amex platinum, among many others. Semantics, then?

  • jerryatric

    After reading all the horror stories, I have 1 club? of sorts that allows me certain privileges at a price. I pick one if I want, & best of all I’m not tied to a rotten airline, hotel chain or even the thieving car rental companies. More if I do have a problem, the company will go to bat for me as well.
    So as I said, I do my homework, try & get the best deal, & times & go. No blackouts or the string of other restrictions that they come up with to shaft you.

  • whatup12

    I think you are right and likely what i will do when i start flying less. For now, I have star alliance gold and skyteam elite plus, but likely (hopefully) will fly less moving forward and will need some sort of program like that. But for now, I only need to avoid one world airlines…which most of the time is just fine though as you note, BA can be nice. at times. :)

  • bodega3

    If people are finding out when they go to use their miles, then they are not flying enough, making purchases with companies that give mileage credit to keep the account active or have a UA credit card. It isn’t hard to keep up on your mileage program.

  • bodega3

    You either get a monthly statement by mail or by email.

  • bodega3

    That is a pretty lame comment. Then those people are not really frequent flyers.

  • omgstfualready

    Oh come on – who else thought this two sentences into the ‘story’? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31g0YE61PLQ

  • Gerald Halpern

    You are correct in only one point – “United may be a far cry from a customer friendly airline”! Glad to know that you’ve managed to get regular statements; this is hardly the norm. Furthermore, United’s Mileage Plus redemption process is abysmal – anyone who could say otherwise is either in the air more than on the ground, or has a horse in the race…

  • Helio

    I have the impression that OP was cleaning a drawer, found a very old loyalty card (which he probably had forgotten its existence), and “Ops! Let’s see if it still works!”
    Unfortunately… no.

  • Jonathan

    Can we skip the personal attacks? Comments such as yours add nothing to the discussion… someone having a different opinion then you doesn’t mean they have no class

  • Travelnut

    You seem to be a new poster. Just so you know, one of the rules here is to not insult other posters.

  • Gerald Halpern

    Unfortunately, the comments made regarding my original post have been derisive, negative and laden with slurs and poor attitude. As much as I like to read Chris’s posts, I have been sorry to find that those who appear to surround him on this blog lack any semblance of appropriate behavior. I will be happy to cut my ties to this, without delay. I prefer the high road, which is nowhere to be found in this gathering. Goodbye and good luck to you.

  • Gerald Halpern

    Read the sarcastic, insulting replies to my original post and think again. On the whole, an extremely unpleasant group of people.

  • emanon256

    I’m sorry you think every one who posts here works for United.

  • Gerald Halpern

    Better that you address your friends regarding how best to communicate. I’m finished with the low end approach and very poor attitude of your crowd.

  • bodega3

    How often do you fly? How often do you use miles for a ticket or upgrade? You sound like you have been burned, possibly by not understanding how a frequent flyer program works?

  • Helio

    The first guy who commented your original post just pointed that UA advises in its website when the miles are due to expiration.

    Then, YOU accused him to be at UA’s pocket. You did a personal attack, and your comment showed poor attitude.