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Air Miles

An Alberta man with a dream of racking up enough Air Miles to go on a South Pacific vacation is the plaintiff in a potential class-action lawsuit against the loyalty-rewards program, which has said older miles will begin expiring at the end of this year.

The statement of claim for the class action, yet to be certified, was filed this week on behalf of David Helm of Red Deer, Alta., and could affect a broad swath of Canadian points collectors – the claim estimates 10 million households have Air Miles memberships.

The suit's yet unproven claims against LoyaltyOne, Co., which owns and operates Air Miles, states that the loyalty-rewards program instituted an "unfair, unilateral change" with its 2011 announcement that miles five years and older will expire as of Dec. 31, 2016. At that time the program also announced future miles will be date-stamped to expire in five years.

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The statement of claim also says the program has made it more difficult to redeem miles, making it more likely they will expire before the cut-off date. The program has retailers pay to offer Air Miles at their stores or for online purchases, with unused miles adding to the profits of LoyaltyOne.

"The net result is that Air Miles' conduct will result in a large number of the class members' miles expiring, resulting in a significant loss to the class, and a corresponding large windfall for Air Miles," says the statement of claim filled by Calgary law firm JSS Barristers.

Late Thursday, Rachel MacQueen, vice-president of Air Miles marketing, said in an e-mail: "We are reviewing the statement of claim and have no further comment at this time."

However, Air Miles states on its website that it may change "any aspect of the program including booking conditions, redemption procedures or any rewards in any respect, all without notice." In past months Ms. MacQueen has also said the program is dealing with large volumes of redemptions as members try to use their miles before the expiration date.

Although there have been public complaints about the Air Miles expiration policy as the deadline approaches – as well as concerns about the difficulty some members have found in redeeming points, and how well the changes have been publicized – the statement of claim filed Wednesday is believed to be the first class-action attempt, said JSS Barristers partner Andrew Wilson.

"People take it very seriously. The comments are they entered this program in good faith, they wanted to be treated fairly, and they don't feel that that happened," Mr. Wilson said.

The statement of claim seeks unspecified damages.

As loyalty rewards programs have increased in popularity over the past three decades, their backers have crafted increasingly sophisticated and sometimes rigid rules around point redemption. Unused points with no expiry date are a liability for the owners of the programs.

But in response, consumers have paid increasing attention to changing loyalty-rewards program policies. In 2013, when Aeroplan was also facing the possibility of a class-action suit and a backlash to changes to its program, it said it would cancel its seven-year expiration policy.

The statement of claim says Mr. Helm, 61, has spent years saving his miles for products as well as a trip to the South Pacific, "a trip that he would not otherwise be able to afford."

In an interview, Mr. Helm said the issues around Air Miles have bothered him for a long time. "The only things you can get are just out of reach – it's sort of an encouragement to get more miles.

"If you do achieve more miles, that reward is no longer available to you. And you're encouraged to go for a bigger one," he said.