Middle Age Miles

AA Shutdowns – Observations on AA’s Response to the Borges v. AA DoT Complaint

american airlines aa aadvantage termination shutdown citi credit cards

Introduction

One of the hottest topics in the points-and-miles world over the past few months has been American Airlines’ shutdowns of certain AAdvantage accounts related to acquisition of AA co-branded Citi credit cards. We’ve covered this topic in great detail at Middle Age Miles, looking at big-picture issues as well as the circumstances leading to my own account termination by AA (wholly unjustified, but we won’t re-hash that story here). If you’re interested, here are links to previous articles:

Since the time we published these articles, we’ve bided our time with respect to pursuing AA. Part of the reason was that life interfered with personal commitments that took up a lot of time; another part was that we’ve wanted to see how things played out a bit before jumping into litigation with AA. [Bottom line, we still believe we have a strong litigation position against AA despite the fact that the law is not particularly consumer-friendly.]

Earlier this week, there was an interesting development on the AA shutdown front. AA filed a lengthy and detailed public response to one of the complaints lodged against it with the Department of Transportation (DoT). We appreciate Gary of View From The Wing and Seth of Wandering Aramean calling this response to our attention and providing a link to AA’s filing. We’ve now had a chance to review AA’s response in detail, and this article shares some of our thoughts about it.

Relevant Link

Here is a link to AA’s response in Borges v. AA if you’d like to read the full filing.

Thoughts & Observations on AA’s Response in Borges v. AA

1 – This is only a response filed by AA, containing AA’s arguments. It is not a ruling by the DoT.

We’ve noticed several comments from people who seemed to think that this document is a DoT ruling or otherwise has the force of law. It’s not that at all; it’s just AA’s position and argument.

2 – The facts about the Complainant (Borges) are terrible.

We won’t recount the entire story here. But suffice to say that these are about as terrible a set of facts and about as unsympathetic a Complainant as possible. Multiple players working together to acquire at least 45 Citi/AA cards over a 4-year period; creation of patently false AAdvantage accounts including one opened under the name “Bubbles”; creation of multiple AAdvantage accounts for the same person; etc., etc. If the facts that AA presents about the Complainant and her relatives are true, then this is one of the clearest possible cases of fraud & abuse that would justify account terminations by AA.

3 – AA’s regulatory team & lawyers clearly selected this case to bring to the forefront and hopefully create precedent that helps them.

The facts about the Complainant are so bad that AA will certainly “win” this particular case. We’re sure that AA is hoping that when the DoT inevitably rules in its favor with respect to this case, the DoT will also issue some sweeping statements that AA will try to apply in other cases where the facts are quite different. It’s a reasonable strategy by AA’s regulatory team and lawyers. If we were in AA’s shoes, we’d probably do the same thing.

4 – AA’s response is absolute overkill for this particular case.

AA’s response is a remarkable 25 pages long. To be sure, it didn’t take anywhere near 25 pages to put it in a strong position to defeat this particular Complainant. The reason is related to point #3 above – AA wants to use this case to set precedent that will help it in other cases. That said, though, in its zealousness, AA may have stumbled here and there in ways that can be turned against it down the road.

5 – AA admits that Citi is its “partner.”

On page 1 of the response, AA refers to Citi as its “valued co-branded credit card partner.” On page 5, AA again calls Citi its “partner” when it says that they have been co-brand partners since 1987. Without writing a legal treatise here, understand that “partner” is a term of art in the law, and calling another party your “partner” can have substantial legal implications.

6 – Even though it’s not necessary for AA to win this particular case, AA does talk about the Complainant obtaining application mailers addressed to other individuals and changing name/address/AAdvantage account information during the online process.

This feels like part of the “hope to use this bad case to set good precedent” strategy by AA. Yes, according to AA, the Complainant did use a mailer addressed to someone else to apply for an AA Citi card. AA brings this up, but never really relies on it in its legal arguments.

7 – AA’s response provides a fair bit of information about how AA and Citi went about its “targeted mailing campaigns” and makes some untrue statements.

This section on page 5 of the response is particularly interesting. In the course of setting out this information, though, AA makes at least a couple of statements that are demonstrably untrue.

For one thing, AA states that mailer “invitations contain a unique invitation code that the member will use when applying for the Citi Card, to tie the application (and New Account Mileage Bonus) to the intended recipient of the invitation.” This is simply false. Mailers that contained a 9-digit code were not restricted to the person to whom the mailer was addressed; rather, any person could use the code to apply under his or her own name, SSN and AAdvantage number. (AA/Citi sent other mailers with 12-digit codes that were restricted to the person to whom the mailer was addressed, so there was a clear difference.)

As another example, AA states that “the offer terms specify that an individual may only earn one New Account Mileage Bonus in a 48-month period.” Again, this is false. For example, the terms for the offers for which we personally applied did not contain any time restriction (and this appears to have been true for many other people as well, based on our research). Neither the mailer nor the online application contained any time restriction at all.

8 – AA also contradicts itself.

Amazingly, this happens in back-to-back sentences on page 5 of the response. In one sentence, AA clearly implies that a person can only get one sign-up bonus for a Citi card (“Promotional offers for New Account Mileage Bonuses ordinarily are available only to new Citi Card account holders.”). Whereas, in the very next sentence, AA says that cardholders can get a new sign-up bonus every 48 months (“The promotional terms currently provide that such account holders can earn a New Account Mileage Bonus so long as they have not received one in the previous 48 months.”).

9 – AA says that people were able to get multiple sign-up bonuses “due to a technical issue.”

At the top of page 6 of its response, AA says that “certain unscrupulous individuals” were able to “circumvent security protocols” and get multiple sign-up bonuses, “due to a technical issue.” Wow, lots to unpack here. We could go on forever, but let’s just say that the situation with 9-digit mailers existed for about 2 years, (most) people were applying using their own name & SSN, and AA’s partner Citi vetted the applications, determined that applicants qualified, and awarded the bonuses.

10 – AA reads FlyerTalk and Reddit.

AA even includes a couple of excerpts from FlyerTalk and Reddit threads as exhibits to its response. This made us laugh. We just hope that AA reads Middle Age Miles, too!

11 – AA tries to say that disclosures in card applications that can be accessed through aa.com should be applied to all applications, even those made through different channels.

This borders on the absurd. Terms & conditions attached to a credit card application through one channel also apply to applications made through a totally different channel that contain different terms? Suffice to say, we don’t believe this position has any basis in contract law or in the myriad of highly detailed and specific banking laws and regulations that apply to credit card applications.

12 – AA’s response makes clear that it can specifically identify minute details of a card application.

With respect to Borges, AA could tell whether she applied through aa.com, used a mailer, or used some other channel. AA also knew the terms of the offers; for instance, on page 23 of the response, AA spells out that the offers at issue were for 60,000 and 70,000 AA miles, not 75,000 as Borges had stated in her complaint. The fact that AA knows these details should be very helpful to people who don’t have hard evidence of the terms & conditions of the particular offer for which they applied. AA can access this information, and its response to Borges proves that it’s not overly burdensome or difficult for AA to do so.

13 – AA’s response also makes clear that it can access recorded phone conversations between customers and AA agents.

In its response, AA recites numerous details of phone conversations involving Borges, her accounts, and her family members. For other people’s cases, it may be possible that there are phone conversations that would help the customer. The fact that AA accessed this information so easily for the Borges matter proves that it’s not overly burdensome or difficult for AA to obtain this information if requested in a lawsuit by a different customer.

Wrap-Up

In sum, it seems a virtual certainty that AA will “win” this particular case because the facts relating to the Complainant are so bad. We can only hope that the DoT is smart enough to not take AA’s bait and that it doesn’t issue a ruling with broad and unnecessary language that harms other consumers.

We could write much more about AA’s response, but we’ll stop here to keep it manageable. We hope you’ve found it interesting, and if you’re pursuing AA legally as the result of an unjustified termination, we hope you find it helpful.

What do you think about AA’s response to the DoT in the Borger case? Please let us hear your thoughts in the Comments!


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33 thoughts on “AA Shutdowns – Observations on AA’s Response to the Borges v. AA DoT Complaint

  1. Seth Miller

    AA did not select this case for a special response as you assert in point 3. AA had no choice but to respond because of how Borges filed the claim. That’s the double-edged sword of the formal complaint process.

    You also have no idea which codes were used by the Borges triad in the 45 applications submitted. Claiming making any assertion re that without the details seems a poor choice IMO.

    1. Craig at Middle Age Miles Post author

      Hi Seth – Thanks for the comment. You’re correct that AA had to file a response. But this response was taking a cannon to a water gun fight.

      I’m not sure what you mean by your second comment. The AA response makes clear that Borges made her first application through aa.com. It strongly implies that she used mailers sent to other AAdvantage account holders, some of which AA said were fraudulent, for other applications. Those details are quite apparent from the response; I’m not making any supposition at all about anything that’s not covered in AA’s own response. ~Craig

      1. Steven

        What exactly is fraudulent about making another account? AA T&Cs don’t restrict members to 1 account – in fact I had acquired a few over the years that they had helped me merge, which happens when I forget to fill out the Card Application with my frequent flier number. If I were to subscribe to Bed Bath and Beyond newsletters and mailers with multiple addresses to increase my odds of receiving a coupon would I be committing fraud? If I were to use a coupon a neighbor got in their mailbox, but didn’t want and gave me, would I be committing fraud? Would they then have the right to come to my house and take everything that had been purchased from their store? Including gifts given to me by friends and family years ago? Just curious if I should be worried about my relationship with BBB going forward.

        1. Craig at Middle Age Miles Post author

          Hi Steven – I’ll let AA’s and BBB’s lawyers handle the answer to these questions 🙂 Thanks for the comment and for reading Middle Age Miles! ~Craig

    2. PD

      How much is AA paying you for your garbage article, Seth? At least you’re doing research on how to actually write an interesting blog. Until you learn, maybe you should go back into the overheard compartment featured in your profile pic.

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  3. Paul

    Thanks Craig. I’m always interested in your thoughts on this matter. I’m also shutdown and planning eventually file in SCC. I cringed at the details when reading the response, but as a fan of “The wire” appreciated the Bubbles reference.

    1. Craig at Middle Age Miles Post author

      Thanks, Paul. You know we wish you all the best in pursuing AA, and I hope the article is of some help with that effort. Bubbles made me laugh too 🙂 ~Craig

    1. Craig at Middle Age Miles Post author

      Thanks, Grant. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I hope you and Laura have a great weekend! ~Craig

      1. Grant

        We are just hanging out at home this weekend. We have been to Tahoe and SoCal recently, so just relaxing at home 🙂

        Do you and Philly have any exciting weekend plans?

        1. Craig at Middle Age Miles Post author

          Nothing this weekend, relaxing at home like you guys. We’re planning to take a road trip to visit friends & family in Arkansas next weekend. Everyone is trying to be super-careful ahead of the trip. Hopefully everyone will stay healthy so we can go.

          Your getaway to Tahoe sounded great. We were envious of that one for sure!

          1. Grant

            I’ve never been to Arkansas, but maybe we will get there one day. Hopefully you can go on your road trip.

            We are currently planning to go to Carmel later this month to celebrate our 1 year anniversary too

  4. Ryan

    Craig – I’ve also been following this after AA has lied (very directly and blatantly) in its emails to me after I filed a DOT complaint. I find mixed blessings in this response from AA, since I got one of the early “super vague” replies before yours had the added language about Citi cards.

    1. Craig at Middle Age Miles Post author

      Hi Ryan – I agree, I’ve read many reports of AA playing fast and loose with the facts surrounding the mailers and card applications. Best of luck if you file a lawsuit or other complaint against AA! ~Craig

  5. Chuckles

    “AA’s response makes clear that it can specifically identify minute details of a card application…AA also knew the terms of the offers; for instance, on page 23 of the response, AA spells out that the offers at issue were for 60,000 and 70,000 AA miles, not 75,000 as Borges had stated in her complaint. ”

    All the intern needed to do was look at the AAdvantage statement and see that there are no 75K mile bonuses. This is not a “minute” detail and did not require looking at Citi records..

    The big problem here is that AA is throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the complainant, and doesn’t care if some of it is false. In fact blatant falsehoods are effective as a strategy. DoT isn’t going to challenge them, and they serve as a threat to those who, like you, have done nothing wrong but AA will attack you to their last breath.

    1. Craig at Middle Age Miles Post author

      Hi Chuckles – Thanks for the comment. Totally agree with your last paragraph. ~Craig

  6. MrDioji

    Thanks for the write-up Craig. Spot on – except perhaps #3. I think AA had to make a formal response since it was a formal complaint. I’m not sure if they’ve received other formal complaints and decided to make this particular one public (via apparent corporate shill, Seth), or if this is the only formal response they’ve made.

    #11 also jumped out at me. She was “on notice” of the application terms due to the terms in a different application. That is so absurd. Could you imagine if that’s how contracts worked? Ha! They’d be much shorter, at least (although impossible to interpret and follow).

    Would love for you to submit a Formal DOT complaint to get a ruling on the other end of the spectrum.

    1. Craig at Middle Age Miles Post author

      Hi MrDioji – I’m glad you enjoyed the article, and thanks for the compliment. On point #3, you are correct that AA had to make a formal response, but as I noted in response to another comment, this particular response to this particular complaint was bringing a cannon to a water gun fight.

      I honestly don’t know one way or the other, but I would guess that there are other formal complaints and responses. Similarly, I would also guess that there’s a reason that this particular one has become more public. I’ll leave it at that. ~Craig

  7. Myles

    I enjoy reading your well written fair balanced, posts on this topic even more than others. Please continue the great work. While this has not directly impacted my family yet, it easily could at ant time. Furthermore, it may impact other travel providers behavior and that could eventually impact all of us. I wish you success in your pursuit of a fair outcome including restoration of your account and significant monetary compensation (donate it to a charity if you don’t wish). I’m not sure what the the consequences are to both Meghan Ludtke and her employer for submitting false and misleading statements to the DOT, but I hope they are very severe. They certainly would be if submitted to certain other federal agencies.

    1. Craig at Middle Age Miles Post author

      Hi Myles – Thanks for the comment, and I appreciate the kind words. I believe that your point is well-taken about the potential ripple effects from this situation and the fact that may embolden other travel providers.

      I’d like to think that AA and its representatives would be called to task for submitting false and misleading statements to the DoT, but somehow I doubt there will be consequences. ~Craig

  8. Chuck Lesker

    If you really have nothing to hide, please submit a “formal” DoT complaint. As a blogger, your identity is already public, unlike others like me who don’t want their names and emails posted on government web pages. As a lawyer you should be able to write a much better complaint than the incompetent one you wrote about; and AA’s dishonest but scorched-earth reply will help you refine your arguments for your later court case.

    I am sure you know this, but for others reading, this is different from the “informal” web complaint. You do not have to file the informal complaint first. Some details on how to file a formal complaint are here: http://www.benedelman.org/dot-complaints/

    Be warned that if you so much as drove 31 in a 30mph zone, they will try to find out and include that in their rebuttal. And even if you didn’t, they will claim you did.

    1. Craig at Middle Age Miles Post author

      Hi Chuck – I appreciate your encouragement. I have to follow the correct legal strategy for my particular case, which may be different than the best strategy for others. You’re right, I’m not particularly worried about the “public” part, as I’ve already been candid in our earlier articles.

      Many thanks for sharing the good online resource about formal DoT complaints. I hope that’s helpful to MAM readers. ~Craig

    1. Craig at Middle Age Miles Post author

      Thanks, Nun. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Have a great weekend! ~Craig

    1. Craig at Middle Age Miles Post author

      Hi Allen – Good question. I don’t know about the DoT. The time limit for filing litigation is a moderately complicated question. If you’re filing a claim against AA for breach of contract in Texas, it’s 4 years from the date of the breach (presumably from the date of your account termination). If you’re asserting other claims in Texas, the limitations period may be different and shorter, such as 2 years. If you’re filing a claim against AA in a state other than Texas, you’d need to consult your own state’s laws. Thanks for the comment and good luck if you’re filing a claim against AA! ~Craig

  9. MMer

    Are there still people who are locked, but not shutdown? The discussion on that topic has died off over the last few months with the onset of COVID. Has AA completed its purge of “bad actors?”

    That aside, what stands out to me most is AA’s complicity and downright enablement of this whole debacle. They’ve admitted they follow online forums that discussed exactly how to apply, app frequency, and how to interact with Citi. This “churn” went on for years. If they knew all this and never closed the loophole they are complicit and allowed this to continue in the interest of profit. There’s no other reason. The notion that they are the victim doesn’t carry any weight when they willingly held the door open to whoever want to walk in and out of it for years.

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  12. Grimex

    Why don’t you initiate your own FORMAL DOT complaint against AA ? To learn more about the different DOT complaint processes, look up Ben Edelman formal DIT complaint in Google

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