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Advertising for airline customer loyalty programs frequently offers customers "miles" as a reward.

For instance, Delta Airlines claims:

Earn up to 50,000 bonus miles with the Delta SkyMiles® American Express Cards. Terms apply.

(This example technically only says "up to," but there are others that do not include such a qualifier).

Of course, these miles do not correspond to any common usage of the term miles, but rather represent a certain number of loyalty program points, one that would be insufficient to buy any combination of flights that would travel a distance greater than twice the circumference of the earth.

On the surface, would seem like a clear example of misleading or false advertising under a number of legal regimes (including the USA): a company redefines a term related to their product (the distance travelled) in such a way as to produce a misleading impression that can result in financial benefit, without noting the redefinition in its advertisement.

However, this does not appear to have caused any legal problems for airlines, so that would suggest that such advertising is legal. Why is this?

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  • When you say that these miles "of course" do not equal real miles, you've sort of answered your own question. Advertising isn't misleading if everyone understands what's going on.
    – bdb484
    Commented Apr 17, 2022 at 3:52
  • @bdb484 - There's the rub, no? Does everyone understand what is going on? There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that many people at least start out under the impression that airline "miles" are actual miles of travel. Examples: 1, 2.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Apr 17, 2022 at 4:53
  • There are undoubtedly many people who don't understand the system. My expectation -- without having done any legal research -- is that the courts would ask what a reasonable consumer would understand. At this point at least, I don't think reasonable consumers make the same mistake you're imagining. Honestly, I think the average consumer doesn't really have any expectation that the miles reliably correlate to anything. My expectation is just that they'll build up at an unknown rate over time and eventually I'll be able to save some unknown sum of money a trip.
    – bdb484
    Commented Apr 18, 2022 at 2:52
  • Note "Terms apply." Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 4:29

2 Answers 2

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Airline miles are pegged to the miles you fly

For those airlines which still call their points miles (many don’t) you usually earn 1 mile for each full-fare economy nautical mile flown. More for business and first class, less for discount fares.

So, no problem.

That said, the word is now generic to the extent that any loyalty program could use then without confusion.

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  • That makes some sense.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Apr 17, 2022 at 5:29
  • Also, those are nautical miles, not ground miles.
    – Trish
    Commented Apr 17, 2022 at 14:34
  • @Trish that’s what it says
    – Dale M
    Commented Apr 17, 2022 at 21:08
  • Also the loyalty program documents should explain the meaning of "miles" in detail. Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 6:21
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Do you really think the use of the metaphor of "miles" by an airline pertaining to airline travel is in some way false advertising?

Back in the Bad Old Days (circa ~1950-1970), grocery stores and gas stations used to give away "green stamps": they looked like postage stamps, and they were bright green and printed with a value and the name of the store or station, and you got one stamp for each $1 you spent at the store or gas station.

The store or gas station also gave you a paper album to collect their stamps in, like you would collect real postage stamps, and so you licked the green stamps on the back and stuck them on the pages, and when you filled an album, you traded it in for merchandise or some cash value of groceries or gas denoted on the stamps.

You, of course, couldn't use green stamps to mail a letter, even though they looked like stamps and were called stamps by everyone. No one seemed to have trouble noting the difference in the different kinds of stamps that happened to be called by the same noun, or the fact that their usage greatly differed. The marketing idea was simply that the concept of a "stamp" denoted some kind of value that could be collected and redeemed.

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  • So what you are saying is based on the concept that it is obvious, and therefore not misleading advertising, correct? Everyone is familiar with the fact that these airlines use "miles" to refer to something other than the obvious (actual miles travelled), so there is no risk of being misled. That probably makes sense for people who fly regularly and are familiar with the systems, but by most estimates, 90% of the world population does not fly at least once per year, and a majority has never flown. How obvious would it necessarily be to them?
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Apr 17, 2022 at 4:09
  • "Has someone else gotten away with it?" isn't a particularly useful rubric for assessing whether conduct is lawful.
    – bdb484
    Commented Apr 18, 2022 at 2:48

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