Business

Proposed class action against Air Miles goes on despite expiry cancellation

A proposed class action lawsuit targeting Air Miles will proceed even though the rewards program has cancelled its controversial expiry policy. The claim alleges Air Miles is still treating its members unfairly.

Lawsuit claims rewards program still treating members unfairly, though expiry policy dropped

Air Miles member David Helm is the lead plaintiff in a proposed class action lawsuit filed against the rewards program. (David Helm)

A proposed class action lawsuit targeting Air Miles will continue even though the rewards program has cancelled its controversial expiry policy.

"Too little too late," says David Helm, the lead plaintiff in the suit and a longtime Air Miles collector.

While cancelling the expiry policy eliminated one major concern, other beefs about Air Miles continue, such as fair access to rewards, says Helm, who lives in Red Deer, Alta.

There's also a new complaint: disgruntled members who spent thousands of miles on rewards they didn't really want just to beat a now-withdrawn expiry date.

"Air Miles has not provided adequate compensation to those who have suffered," says Helm. "Until such time as we're satisfied, we're going forward."

In order to proceed, the suit must first be certified in court.

Air Miles program still 'unfair'

The proposed class action was filed in September by Calgary law firm JSS Barristers on behalf of Air Miles members.

The suit alleged the program "engaged in unfair practices" including introducing a five-year expiry policy for miles without adequate notice. It also claimed Air Miles made it difficult for collectors to use up their points before they expired on Jan. 1.

Following increasing pressure from critics, the program's owner, Toronto-based LoyaltyOne, cancelled its expiry rule last month.

But the suit was "actually about the fair treatment of program members," says lawyer Andrew Wilson, who's with JSS Barristers. "And that hasn't changed," he claims.

The suit's unresolved issues include the allegation that Air Miles unfairly blocked some members from accessing various rewards.

Collectors complained to CBC news that Air Miles was hiding rewards from people who had enough points to buy them. (CBC)

CBC News ran stories in the summer about collector complaints that when they finally had enough points to buy selected premium merchandise, their chosen rewards suddenly disappeared.

At the time, the program said it tailored rewards based on each member's personal preferences and engagement in the program.

In October, Air Miles stated it changed its policy due to member feedback. It would now base rewards access on how many miles collectors rack up in a year.

Wilson claims that regardless of what set of rules it uses, giving different collectors access to different rewards contradicts Air Miles' promotional slogans such as "reward yourself your way" and "the choice is yours."

"The position they're taking to members seems to be this is a wonderful, open flexible program where you're in complete control, and that's not the case," he says.

Air Miles would not comment on the lawsuit, telling CBC news it doesn't discuss pending legal matters.

Cash rewards still hot topic

Wilson claims another outstanding issue is the fact that in late 2011, the rewards program split miles into two different categories — dream and cash.

People who missed the news and didn't choose a category later discovered that all miles earned during that time were defaulted to the dream category — which includes lots of pricey travel and merchandise rewards.

Under the new rules, unspecified miles — along with any miles earned before 2012 — can no longer be used to get popular gift cards which are now locked in the cash category.

"It all comes back to the same issues regarding was the program run properly and fairly to its members?" says Wilson.

He adds that complaints continue to pour in about Air Miles. A common one now is people who spent miles they thought would soon expire on rewards they didn't particularly want.

Wilson says he may update the suit to include this latest gripe in some form.

Helm says he was saving his points for a dream vacation to the South Pacific. But he ended up squandering thousands on a trip to the Yukon only because of the looming expiry date.

"We could have bought the trip for next to nothing but we chose to use Air Miles because we were trying to get rid of them," he says.

Air Miles states on its website that it's not accepting returns, cancellations or exchanges due to the cancellation of the expiry policy.

Trouble ahead?

The proposed lawsuit isn't the only battle Air Miles faces.

Many retailers partner with the program to offer customers rewards, including Metro grocery stores in Ontario. But Metro's chief executive  Eric La Fleche said this week that the negativity surrounding Air Miles will be a factor when the program's contract is up for renewal.

"It has been rocky this fall with Air Miles, no doubt about that," he said.

On Wednesday, Metro sent an email to customers who use Air Miles, informing them, "Metro will continue to offer this benefit for as long as it continues to meet the needs of our customers."

Metro grocery chain says it will consider its options when it comes time for its contract renewal with Air Miles. (CBC)

Air Miles' Facebook site is also still riddled with nasty comments from collectors — some of whom say they've had enough.

"It's a new year — one that is free of Air Miles Canada card in my wallet," posted one person earlier this month.

I will "forever boycott Air Miles," wrote someone else.

Plaintiff Helm says he will still remain a member for now, in case he receives some kind of compensation from the lawsuit. Damages sought for class action members have not yet been specified.

Once that chapter is over, Helm also says he'll be done with the program — unless it finds a way to treat customers more fairly.

"I don't plan on dealing with Air Miles again unless they come up with something a whole lot better."

Wilson hopes to amend the suit's statement of claim this month to reflect the expiry cancellation and include any new allegations.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Based in Toronto, Sophia Harris covers consumer and business for CBC News web, radio and TV. She previously worked as a CBC videojournalist in the Maritimes where she won at Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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