He Had Unlimited Flying Privileges, Until He Didn’t

Even on the days where I’m exhausted after a long business trip, the thought of being able to fly anywhere I want, anytime I want in first class for the rest of my life is pretty appealing.  That’s the story of the lifetime AAirpass that American Airlines sold when I was much younger.  I have yet to meet someone who purchased one of these gems.  However, my friend John M sent me an enthralling story about someone who purchased one, and lost it.

Losing Your AAirpass Flying Privileges

How do you lose such a privilege?  It’s not like you can misplace the card or lose your wallet.  No, you need to break the rules enough to lose in court.  Or, if you look at the more cynical side of things, do just enough to give American Airlines an excuse to break a contract they hate being a part of.

A recent article by Caroline Rothstein tells the story of her father, Steven.  How he purchased the AAirpass back in the 80s with the dream of unlimited flying in first class.  And, how after many years, according to him, American Airlines found a loophole to revoke his pass.

In 1987, amidst a lucrative year as a Bear Stearns stockbroker, my father became one of only a few dozen people on earth to purchase an unlimited, lifetime AAirpass. A quarter of a million dollars gave him access to fly first class anywhere in the world on American for the rest of his life. He flew so much it paid for itself. Often he’d leave in the morning for a business trip, fly back, and I hadn’t even known he’d left. Other times, I remember calling his office to find out what country he was in. He (and our whole family) was featured on NBC’s Today Show in 2003, and then on MSNBC in 2006. For 20 years, he was one of American’s top fliers, accumulating more than 30 million miles, which he acquired every time he flew, even with the AAirpass.

It might seem like a story of a court battle. But, the author unwraps a story of personal loss.  She tells the story of losing her brother and how it affected her father.  And, how he ultimately relied on lifelong friends at American Airlines to comfort him while he grieved:

“When everyone was asleep in the house,” he tells me, “and I had nobody to talk to, and I was lonely about Josh’s death, I would telephone American Airlines reservations and speak to the agents about who knows what for an hour and then at the end, they’d ask me, oh what reservation was I calling about to make, and I would say, ‘Oh yeah I need to go to San Francisco next week.’ I really didn’t need to go to San Francisco. I was just very confused and very lonely and I was calling American Airlines because they were logical people for me to speak to. They knew me. I knew them. I knew their names. I knew their lives.

Some folks have reported problems reading the full article via this link.  I can’t republish it without violating copyright rules.  I’ve checked it again and I can see the full article, including the resolution.  I’ve also added a summary here:

Ultimately, Rothstein sued American Airlines for damages and lost.  American countersued him, it got ugly.  It stretched on for years, ultimately ending when American Airlines bankruptcy ended.  The part of the story that frustrates me the most is that American doesn’t seem to have ever warned him that the behavior was bad.  They helped him book reservations for years using methods they later determined were fraudulent.

If they really wanted him to stop the behavior, I believe they would have warned him.  Instead, they terminated the contract after many years of the behavior.  To me, that points more to American’s desire to terminate the contract than to get compliance from Rothstein.

The Final Two Pennies

This story fascinates me. It’s the story of a family where travel was such an integral part of their lives.  I feel the same about my family, though without the luck of a lifetime pass to jet wherever I want, whenever I want.  Whether you find Steven Rothstein right or wrong, the story is worth your time.  It’s much more a story about travel, and how it brings us together, then how a lawsuit tears it apart.

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  1. Interesting and sad story. It seems that AA had no intention of compromising. I will say that the gentleman did use his privileges beyond the max so the cancelation of his lifetime first class privilege may have been a “wash” for both he and the airline.

  2. Interesting story, but I don’t understand what happened. How did he lose his pass? Maybe I just missed it.

          1. I was able to follow the link to the full story. Sad how events precipitated. It seems like AA didn’t operate in good faith. They were simply trying to terminate these passes any way they could. Lucky for AA the judges ruled in their favor.

  3. It does seem pretty shady. Too bad the contract language didn’t explicitly mention the possibility of the empty companion seat. He probably would have won.

    1. American says that he booked many reservations with no intent to fly and that ultimately constituted fraud. They terminated his contract for that and other behavior they determined was fraudulent.

  4. Where can I find the rest of the article? This posting of Boarding Pass only gives 1/2 of the article. It shows the late night calls to AA, then jumps to “The Final Two Pennies”. Article over. Posting issue?

    1. Some people are having trouble seeing the full article when they click the link in my story. I haven’t been able to reproduce that error. I can’t wholesale reprint the article without violating the law, so I added a brief summary near the bottom of the post. Hope that helps.

  5. I clicked through and read the original article. AA was certainly blunt with their actions, but those actions seem warranted. The absurdly-long length of the article alone is a good indicator of that. She presents a tiny sliver of argument with a healthy dose of “oh-woe-is-me” because their gig was finally up. These people had based the entirely identity around the airline and abused the AirPass for everything they could — then acted shocked when it finally went away.

    1. Lance, I still think I would have preferred AA warned them that the behavior was inappropriate in their view. I have much less of an issue if he was warned and chose to disagree.

  6. What a story! I hope Steven ultimately understands that business is business and it appears on the surface their major beef was the loss of additional revenue from an ability to sell the extra seat he was holding. The issue for me is that even today, AA is so stingy with upgrades that it would have been only a loss of an upgrade seat. Revenue management always holds a seat for last minute purchase, making any impact to revenue a moot point. It would be an interesting legal exercise to see what implied breach they were actually claiming since neither article actually states details about any claims.

  7. Sounds like he got WAY more than the purchase value out of this Pass, and would have continued to do so had he not developed a sense of entitlement leading to wildly-inappropriate and fraudulent behavior.

    On the AA side, I think that it is reprehensible that they issued no warnings about the behavior, instead documenting a long period of abuse and then suddenly terminating the Pass as their first and only act with regard to its mis-use. Nothing less than I expect from U.S. Airlines, which are among the most incompetent and customer-hostile businesses on the Planet.

    1. Bobb, I’m not sure he got way more than the value of his pass. He took on risk, considering the time value of money and the real risk that the airline could go under. And, I really do think AA owed him some notice on the behavior.

  8. AA should of let him know that what he was doing was wrong. When you book a seat without intentions of using it that is revenue lost foe the airline which makes it wrong!!

    1. M Haden, it’s only revenue if they could sell the seat. Back when he was doing this, the airline charged an arm and a leg for F and frequently didn’t sell the whole cabin. For years, virtually 100% of my flights were upgraded from coach for free because of that. I’m sure there were opportunity costs for AA here. I’d love to know what they were.

  9. I am always amazed when people think American Airlines has any interest or ability in air transportation. Their business model doesn’t concern itself with actual flying only selling tickets at the highest possible price and then adding on fees for any possible reason. None of that has anything to do with actually flying you anywhere. Since he wasn’t generating any revenue he was a useless drain on their resources and had to be eliminated. The only reason they actually fly anywhere is the pilots want to go home at some point despite the corporations complete lack of interest in them or support for flying anybody anywhere.

  10. After reading the full article I feel like I was part of Steven’s family. While I agree that AA should have provided some warning to Steve before terminating his Airpass he was clearly not using the pass as intended. He admits to booking a companion seat for virtually every flight he took even if no one was traveling with him. His daughter mentions in the article that her father likes his extra space on the plane. Well, don’t we all? Those empty companion seats could have been sold. While it’s unfortunate that AA didn’t handle the Airpass termination with more clarity I certainly don’t feel bad for Steve. He called reservation agents and took up an hour of their time just to chit chat while they could be serving other customers! Frankly, I’m surprised AA put up with his Shenanigans as long as they did.

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