A Supreme Court dispute over frequent flyer programs was left up in the air Tuesday, as the justices appeared split during oral arguments over whether the airline or a well-traveled rabbi should prevail.
Binyomin Ginsberg claims his WorldPerks Platinum Elite membership was revoked after being told he had "abused" his privileges, repeatedly filing complaints for upgrades and other benefits.
Northwest Airlines, which was consumed by Delta Air Lines in a 2008 merger, said it had "sole judgment" over the program's general terms and conditions to make such determinations.
At issue is whether Ginsberg has a right under state law to bring his case or whether it is preempted by a 1970s-era federal law that deregulated the airline industry.
That law prohibits parties from bringing similar state claims against airlines relating to a "price, route, or service" of the carrier.
The court offered contrasting views in an energetic hour of arguments.
"If the airline has an unreviewable right to terminate this agreement for any reason or for no reason, then it's an illusory contract," said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "If one party can get out willy-nilly, what kind of bargain is it" for the consumer?
But Justice Antonin Scalia said the statute in question was designed to preempt state laws. "The whole purpose of the (federal law) was to deregulate airlines," he said. "Let the free market handle it, and there be will be no state regulation."
Ginsberg runs an educational consulting firm for parents and schools in Minneapolis, and travels frequently to lecture and teach.
He joined Northwest's WorldPerks frequent flier program in 1999 and reached Platinum Elite status - the program's highest - in 2005.
But in June of 2008, Ginsberg claimed a Northwest representative called him and told him his status was being revoked on grounds that he "abused" the program, according to court papers.
He said the airline also took away the hundreds of thousands of miles accumulated in his account.
"I think I did exactly what they wanted and they should have said thank you for giving us this feedback," Ginsberg told CNN's "New Day" in an interview on Wednesday.
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