The best time of the month, Howard Landau remembers a bit wistfully, was when United Air Lines used to mail him his "Mileage Plus" statement. It was usually a fairly complex series of documents, considering that Landau and his family thought nothing of weekending in San Diego, vacationing in Alaska or making five stops between Newark and San Francisco, all to boost their mileage totals.
"It was so much fun," Landau recalls. His wife Eileen would call him at his truck-tire business here, Giant Tire Service Inc., when the envelope arrived. "I couldn't wait to get home. I'd spread them all out, mark everything on my calendar," a master schedule he kept of flights taken. He'd track the bonus miles he got for staying at Westin hotels and renting Hertz and Budget cars. He'd . . .
Well, why torture oneself? That was then, this is now. Howard Landau has been ejected from United's frequent flier program. Now he has to get his kicks from following the progress of his lawsuit against the airline through a federal district court.
"I guess they didn't like the way we played the game," Landau says.
Indeed, United did not. Joe Hopkins, corporate communications manager, says that while the airline will not comment on specifics of the Landau case, the "Mileage Plus" program is "aimed at individuals. The individual accumulates mileage in his own account" and eventually can transfer the bonuses he earns to other family members. "It doesn't work the other way around; that's verboten. It's not permitted in the program, and it never has been."
This is the crux of the dispute: Until United bumped him a little over a year ago, Landau would sometimes have one of his three children use his airline ticket and credit his frequent flier account with the mileage earned. This is because it was advantageous to have lots of miles in one account instead of the same amount scattered among several accounts. He insists it was kosher to do so. "I bought the ticket," he says, "the name was Landau; it's splitting hairs what the first initial was."
Howard and Eileen, both 42, spent plenty of time in the air themselves. A couple of times a month, they'd fly to California to weekend in their second home, near San Diego. They often vacationed in Hawaii or Alaska because that was the farthest they could fly on United.
When bonuses were awarded for the number of "segments" flown, Landau adapted. Calling for reservations, "I always prefaced my conversation by saying, 'I want the cheapest possible fare to Los Angeles with the greatest possible number of stops.' " On one trip, of which he is rather proud, he flew from Newark to Cleveland, Cleveland to Chicago, Chicago to Denver, Denver to Salt Lake City and Salt Lake City to San Francisco -- spending only a few extra hours en route, but getting credit for five segments instead of one. Using such strategies, the five Landaus eventually rolled up about 2 million miles and roughly doubled their investment: Landau says that in four years, he and his family spent about $75,000 in tickets and earned $150,000 worth of free travel and bonuses. This total, of course, does not include the incalculable enjoyment Landau got from this high-stakes form of coupon-clipping.
He was generous with his free tickets, too. He gave friends tickets to Hawaii for a wedding gift, sent his brother and sister-in-law to Mexico for their anniversary. His goal, he confides, was to accumulate 350,000 miles in each of the five Landau accounts and qualify the entire family for a 27-day cruise in the Orient.
But why agonize over what might have been? In March, Landau received a certified letter bouncing him. Talks with United officials about reinstatement proved fruitless. Landau says he was inclined to drop the matter. "Then I started thinking. Y'know, dammit, I spent a lot of money to build this up. Where do they get off taking it all away?" A lawyer said he had a case. There have been offers to settle, Landau says, but they were unacceptable because United would allow him to use his accumulated bonuses (worth, he estimates, more than $100,000) but not to accrue any more mileage. Since Landau had already accumulated so many miles that each one he flies is worth a further bonus, he has refused. He also has refused to give United details of what he admits are some miles mistakenly awarded him.
His lawyer, William B. Bartel, is vacationing in Florida. Bartel's associates declined comment on the case but noted that a scheduling conference with the judge on Monday might result in a court date.
Landau and his family are all flying American now, rolling up credits in its "Advantage" program. But it's not the same. "You can't build your miles up as quick," he complains.