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Flyer Alleges United Under-Awards Miles

Flyer Alleges United Under-Awards Miles

What is the distance between two points?

Or, in the case of air travel, what is the distance between two airports?

In the 21st century, such mundane matters are widely assumed to be settled. With modern satellites and GPS systems, highly accurate measurements are easily made.

But a suit brought by a Chicago-based frequent flyer, Hangbo Han, alleges that United has routinely awarded him fewer miles than he actually flew, claiming that United’s method of measuring flight distances consistently erred in the airline’s favor.

Han’s suit cites several specific examples. For instance, he earned 6,920 miles for a United flight between Beijing and Washington, D.C., but claims the “actual flown distance” was 7,276 miles.

It would appear that the dispute hinges on differing definitions of “flight miles.”

The distances cited by Han come from the website and “other public sources.” Flightaware is capable of tracking the actually flown distance for any given flight, including any deviations from the mathematically ideal flight path to avoid inclement weather or circle an airport while waiting for permission to land. Such measurements would meet the strict definition of “flown miles.”

United refused to reveal the basis or source for the airport-to-airport distances it uses in awarding miles, citing the pending litigation. But the airline appears to be relying on the idealized and unvarying distance between airports: as the crow flies. That’s entirely sensible, given the need to simplify and standardize. But the distances thus measured would more accurately referred to as “computed distance” rather than “flown distance.”

Although the discrepancies between the computed and flown distances are typically modest, if Han is successful in gaining class-action status for his complaint, the combined mileage shortfall sustained by millions of program members on hundreds of thousands of flights could be substantial.

Reader Reality Check

Tempest in a teacup, or a serious breach of MileagePlus members’ trust?

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  • Sean Ryan

    All this clown will accomplish is to force the airlines into a purely revenue-based mileage program, which will suck for the majority of consumers.

    The Great Circle routing is and has been the widely accepted basis for airlines’ mileage calculation. This is petty, dude. Leave it alone.

  • Kris Caluwaerts

    I agree with Sean that this will finally result in a system that is less attracting for the FF. A revenue-based program is an option or just a plain simple system as that of Finnair where the number of miles is fixed per region independent of the route you fly. (eg. EU-US = 3750) (Finnair flies to JFK, MIA, ORD, YTO from Helsinki. The shortest actual distance is 4000 miles) So, both ways, the loyal customer is robbed.

  • ExileInLA

    A whole new “mileage run” concept: book a flight that will spend extra time circling, and then demand mileage for the circling.

    Early morning arrival jam at LHR? MILES!
    Rain at LGA? MILES!
    Fog at SFO? MILES!

  • Grayson Baker Friend

    This would not require a revenue system at all. The cheapest/easiest solution for the airlines would be to add a clause to the terms and conditions that nobody reads to say that mileage is calculated as the crow flies. Which, as far as I know, they probably do say something about their ability to calculate the mileage.


    I agree with the other FF comments. However, it would seem that the mileage amounts would be similar from one airline to another. It is common that Lufthansa awards different miles than United, for example on the same route / fare class. I’m not talking about the 50% reduction for low fares, but rather just comparing a straight “Y” or “J” fare for non-stop routings….

  • Bob Erickson

    This lawsuit is frivolous and should be dismissed by the US District Court along with damages to United for legal costs to defend a frivolous suit. Down with the clown – find a more productive way to spend your time.

  • ND76

    If I were United, I’d ask for Rule 11 sanctions against the putative plaintiff and his counsel.

    However, United has a problem. Since it wrote the frequent flyer rules and imposed them upon the customer, general legal principles of contract interpretation require that the contract/rules be construed strictly against United–i.e., United is stuck with the rule as written, with no wiggle room. One could easily see a pro-consumer, activist judge holding that, since there is commercially available data that shows the actual distance the flight traveled, the airline was obligated to award the passenger that number of miles.

    I would note that a route I fly often, DCA-ATL, is 547 statute miles, calculated by geographic coordinates. When Delta gave out printed timetables, this number of miles was in their timetable, so, it seemed that no frequent flyer could demand a higher number of miles with a straight face. However, given that flights take off from ATL mostly to the west, traffic patterns will easily add between 100 and 200 miles to a plane’s journey (flightaware showed that an ATL-DCA flight covered over 750 miles one time I looked at it.).