Sunday, October 14, 2007


Our daily newspaper used to be delivered by a neighborhood paperboy. We rarely saw him, but without fail our paper was on our front porch by 6 o'clock every morning.

It should have crossed our minds that he never came by to collect what we owed him. It should have, but it never did.

One afternoon our doorbell finally rang. It was the paperboy's father. He explained that his son had gone months without collecting on any of his accounts.

We owed more than $200, if we were to pay both what the paperboy had paid for the newspapers and the small markup he got as his fee for delivering them. The father said that he'd understand if we wanted to pay only for the cost of the papers, and left us a bill.

My wife and I discussed it. On the one hand, we thought that it was irresponsible of the boy not to routinely collect and to leave us with an unexpected whopping bill. On the other hand, we had enjoyed receiving the paper and had no complaints about the service. We talked it over and decided to pay the bill in full.

We felt obligated to pay for what we received, including the delivery service, regardless of the paperboy's tardy billing practices. What's his is his, we figured. He was entitled to it.

When a reader wrote me about his experience with frequent-flier miles, I was reminded of my experience with the paperboy. The details are different, but the lesson is the same: What's someone else's, someone else is entitled to. It's not ours, regardless of how we came upon it.

A few years ago, without warning, an airline's frequent-flier program deleted 24,000 points from my reader's wife's account without warning. He complained in writing, and the airline reinstated the points -- twice. She ended up with the 24,000 points she should have had all along, plus another 24,000 that she shouldn't.

He telephoned the frequent-flier program and reported the error. He was told that the account would be corrected, but it never was. About a year later he and his wife were taking a trip, and they decided to use their points -- including the erroneously duplicated ones -- to purchase their plane tickets.

"Did I have the right to use the duplicated points?" he asks.

I have no doubt that my reader truly wanted to do the right thing by correcting the error that had been made by the airline. No question, the airline did a lousy job of correcting a mistake.

But no matter how they got into his account, where they stayed despite his good-faith efforts to remove them, the points didn't belong to him and weren't his to use. If the points had been cash in his bank account instead of points in his airline account, I daresay that it wouldn't have crossed his mind to use it for his trip. Essentially, however, they were the same thing.

Many people with whom I generally agree on ethical issues don't see eye to eye with me on this one. They believe that at some point, if the company is stupid enough not to correct the error, the reader should be free to use those points as he wishes.

I disagree. Another party's stupidity is no excuse for illegitimate personal gain. If the frequent-flier program could not find a way to correct the statement, the right thing for my reader to do was to treat the points as unusable, since he knew that they weren't his.

I know, I know. If no one knows he's traveling on someone else's points, who's the victim? My reader knows. And it's precisely because he's an honest man that the issue still gnaws at him.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

I believe the paperboy should be
paid in full as he had to pay
for the newspapers anyhow.

As for the Frequent-Flyer points-
he made a genuine effort to correct the error. Most airlines
only allow you to use them as
"space available", so no seat
lost any money for the airline.

We can't always right the wrongs
that occur. If we make a genuine
effort to do so, then we have
done our best.

Anonymous said...

There is a very real difference between a newspaper-- a LOT of newspapers-- and some airline "points." The papers were real-- the "points" are imaginary.

It is not clear at all the airline loses anything by the use of them by this flier-- or any other. in fact, the airline companies "give" them to people to gain a benefit for themselves-- loyalty and market share. If the points were not in the account of that flier,he might have used a cheaper carrier.

So, if the man thought it was wrong to so so, he should not have used the points. But not's not because of some external "right-wrong" standard--it's purely his own.