Ridiculous: American Sues Delta For Confusing Customers Over Which Offers A ‘Flagship’ Experience

American Airlines refers to long haul international and premium transcon flights as ‘Flagship flights.’ They represent 5% of American’s flights but the airline says they generate more than half of premium cabin revenue. The airline has told employees that “[n]early 50 percent of first and business passengers on Flagship flights are elite customers.”

They extend this branding to lounges (Flagship lounge and first dining) and other premium services. And they say that Delta has improperly used the term flagship in some press releases – confusing consumers into thinking Delta has American’s great Flagship product – and they’ve filed a lawsuit against Delta.

American Airlines sued Delta Air Lines for trademark infringement in Texas federal court Friday, accusing the rival of confusing consumers by adopting the term “Flagship.”

American, the largest airline in the country, says it’s used the name “Flagship” as a trademark for premium air services since the 1930s — long before Delta started using the term for similar purposes in 2017.

“Despite knowing that American owns the exclusive right to use the Flagship marks, Delta has begun to use the terms ‘flagship,’ ‘Flagship,’ and ‘FLAGSHIP’ to promote its own airport lounges and premium services and interiors,” the company wrote in its complaint.

“This is no accident,” the company wrote. “American believes Delta is looking to capture additional market share by targeting its greatest competitor, American, and eroding the brand, goodwill, and value that American has built over the past eighty years through the Flagship marks.”

The case is American Airlines Inc. v. Delta Air Lines Inc., case number 4:19-cv-01053, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas.

‘Flagship’ Is Trademarked By Many Different Companies

The word Flagship itself is used in many contexts. It is trademarked by several different companies for different purposes. Flagship Athletic Performance filed for “weightlifting, metabolic training, strength development, mobility, and yoga.” Shulton filed for fragrances. There’s the Visa Signature® Flagship Rewards Credit Card from Navy Federal. Even in the area of rewards, where American Airlines competes, they don’t have ownership over the word Flagship.

Flagship Is A Commonly Used Word With Meaning

In losing ‘Big Mac’ in the European Union, the sandwich is described as McDonalds’ flagship. Apple’s flagship store design can be trademarked. Lexus has trademarked a new model name that “hints at a more powerful flagship SUV.” Nike has a ‘flagship’ store in New York.

What Delta Has Supposedly Done

They’ve referred to their business class suite with doors as their “flagship” Delta One Suite. They’ve also referred to their Airbus A350 as their flagship. And their new SkyClub in Atlanta is also a flagship SkyClub, since it’s promoted as a jewel in the lounge crown at their largest hub.

In other words they’ve used the term as it is ordinarily used. Does American’s trademark give them exclusive use of this term to cover premium products in air travel?

Is Any Consumer Likely To Be Confused?

Delta has the better consumer reputation and earns a revenue premium because of it. It’s absurd to think that Delta would try to confuse consumers into thinking they were getting an American Airlines product when buying travel from Delta. They’ve worked hard on their own brand and they believe it is responsible for outperforming the industry in general and American Airlines in particular.

What’s more, American’s President Robert Isom says the carrier is laser focused on competing against low cost carriers Spirit Airlines and Frontier. The focus on degrading their economy product has eroded the value of their premium brand. Most passengers fly coach. Most premium passengers buy coach domestically, since companies often have rules about the length of a trip before they’ll pay for business. And it’s that experience that colors consumer expectations of what American can deliver in its flagship product.

If there’s any consumer confusion it seems like it would work in reverse – that customers might accidentally buy American Airlines tickets instead of Delta tickets.

The more Delta uses the term flagship, and equates it with its own friendlier and on-time product, the more American Airlines benefits from the term’s uses – precisely because potential American Airlines customers might be confused and think they’re buying Delta.

(HT: @xJonNYC)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Instead of worrying about the competition’s use of the word flagship American should work on righting the ship and improve the customer experience.

  2. AA is going to regret all these recent misdeeds. There will be massive lawsuits coming out of the recent account shutdowns and mileage thefts on AA customers. Going after Delta for this exemplifies the lack of thought process behind each move.

  3. Like AA or not, the Flagship name is trademarked and has been used for decades by American Airlines and I think anyone who knows anything about trademark and patent law would understand which AA is suing Delta over this.

  4. As is often the case, your desire to bash AA exceeds the actual facts. No lawyer would ever say AA’s claim to a Flagship trademark is “ridiculous.” Far from it. Given that they’ve used this term to describe their “premium” aviation product line for decades, they have a very colorable claim to trademark protection. I do not think they have a slam dunk case, though, given the arguable lack of consumer confusion. Given the fairly small potatoes nature of this dispute, especially for Delta, I would expect to eventually see a settlement.

  5. I always thought Delta’s premium product as DeltaOne. Whenever the word flagship is used I’d never confuse it with AA’s premium service. Lol

  6. Pure American gimmick to raise some attention to its inferior product by linking a common word to Delta’s product .
    If I were the judge, i’d throw it out of window by the time I take the 2nd sip of my green tea

  7. @chopsticks – I get that lawyers want to aggressively defend their marks, but claiming ordinary use of a familiar term is infringement is silly when it requires American to say Delta is trying to bask in the glow of the quality of their product.

    Delta may well settle because this is such a nuisance, but that doesn’t mean American isn’t trademark trolling here.

  8. Other than a slow week at AA’s attorney offices, who in their right mind would ever confuse DL with AA???

    Actually, I recommend DL take out ads ASAP to clarify the picture for all:

    “FORGIVE US FOR ANY UNINTENDED CONFUSION. UNLIKE AMERICAN, DELTA’S CONCEPT OF “FLAGSHIP” IS A FLAG PROUDLY WAVING FOR CONSISTENTLY ACHIEVING A BETTER CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE; ITS SHIP IS PROFITABLE, HEALTHY, AND VERY COMPETITIVE. UNLIKE AMERICAN, OUR PEOPLE ALL ROW IN THE SAME DIRECTION. CIAO, AMERICAN.”

  9. TM and Chopsticks are right on the money on this one. Although trademark law is not my principal specialty, I’m close enough to know that while it may not be a slam dunk win for AA, it’s an obvious lawsuit.

    If you don’t take action in these cases, your trademark becomes potentially worthless. I’m also sure that they didn’t just go straight to the lawsuit – there would have been plenty of back and forth first.

  10. @Greg @Gary — Right — it’s “defend it or lose it” when it comes to trademarks. Is AA’s Flagship trademark worth more than nothing? I think so. I mean, I wouldn’t spend million defending this trademark (it’s obviously not THAT important to AA), but I think it’s worth more than nothing. I obviously agree with Gary that there’s some hyperbole in the claim, but the claim is more than colorable, and the trademark could be worth more down the road. The fact that they’ve named their fancy (and good) int’l lounges “Flagship” tells me they plan to do something with this branding. “Flagship” may be unique enough in the airline industry to be protected. Like if somebody started offering “Admirals” lounges, I would expect AA to defend that trademark, too.

  11. @chopsticks unless those lounges were restricted to admirals, or perhaps naval officers, then use of the term by another airline wouldn’t be simply the ordinary meaning of the term and would pretty clearly infringe on a trademark. that’s different from delta’s and nike’s and apple’s use of the term flagship.

  12. Gary,

    You may think it is ridiculous and others are using this to slam AA. However if you knew the first thing about intellectual property law you would know that Delta has to file a claim or risk losing their copyright. Also, you are right that the term has broad meaning but that doesn’t mean AA doesn’t have rights to it within the aviation industry. Frankly I think Delta will be stopped from using it (unless they work out a settlement with AA).

    Would you feel the same if AA starting calling their international business class “American One” which I’m sure would get a similar response from Delta

    Stay in your lane and don’t post on something you know nothing about that you feel is “ridiculous”

  13. @Gary Leff- except the Apple, Nike, and Navy Federal examples you cite aren’t in the same class of good and services, so the risk of consumer confusion is negligible. American’s marks are not registered for use with “rewards,” but rather for air transportation. Words like “goodwill” and “quality” are terms of art in trademark law, so while they may seem absurd from the layman’s perspective of comparing overall commercial products, they’re essential for a trademark infringement claim.

    Delta will no doubt argue, as you’ve pointed out, that usage of the term “flagship” is so generic and broadly used that Delta’s specific use in this generic sense doesn’t infringe American’s mark. But American’s suit is far from frivolous, and as others have noted, if American doesn’t enforce these marks against infringers, they risk losing the protection of the mark altogether.

  14. By the way Bastian, don’t get any ideas using the word Polaris. We’re still trying to figure out if we want to continue to use it.

  15. This lawsuit reminds me of the kid in high school who was willing to fight until he got his butt kicked, then ran crying to his mommy that Billy beat him up. That said, I agree AA needs to challenge the use of the word to keep their trademark relevant, but does anyone know, did they trademark the word by itself our when used in conjunction with other specific words?

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