American Samoa to Government Workers: We Own Your Miles

The government of American Samoa is going where most governments and corporations fear to tread. Effective June 1, workers traveling on government business will no longer own the frequent-flyer miles earned for their trips.

According to an AP report, the government of American Samoa has mandated that, from June 1, all miles earned by government employees on business trips will be the property of the government, which will dole them out to support travel by needy medical patients and students.

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Samoa's governor explained the move as follows:

We have a moral responsibility to help out those of our people who, not by any fault of theirs, find themselves in situations where outside assistance is needed. The added benefit provided by the frequent flier mileage award should be shared with those of our community who are truly impoverished and destitute.

No doubt earmarking airline miles for charitable purposes seems like a laudable effort. But forcibly taking those miles from the government workers who earned them crosses a line that exists for a good reason.

As I explained to one of the AP reporters, there have been periodic spurts of interest by both the corporate and government communities in recapturing miles earned in the course of business-related travel. After all, they reason, the organization paid for the trip and should therefore own any miles or other incentives linked to the purchase.

Although that reasoning appears sound, its force is blunted by two counter-considerations.

The first is a practical one. Frequent-flyer miles are deposited into individual accounts, which typically contain a mix of miles earned for both business and leisure travel. Who is to assume the administrative burden of distinguishing between miles the traveler owns versus those owned by the organization that employs him? And once that distinction has been made, there's no mechanism for transferring the organization's miles into its account. In fact, most frequent-flyer program terms and conditions explicitly state that only individuals may have accounts.

If such practical hurdles weren't enough to dissuade organizations from pursuing the matter further, the morale issue was the deal-breaker. As any road-tested business traveler will tell you, traveling on company business is a hardship. Long days. Uncomfortable flights. Delays. Bad food. Nights and weekends spent away from home and family. And at the end of the month, there's no extra money in the paycheck to show for the extra work and aggravation.

What there is, courtesy of the airlines, is a few frequent-flyer miles. Think of it as hazard pay. Travelers feel they are entitled to the miles, and organizations are generally happy to concede the point.

Not American Samoa, however.

Fortunately for frequent flyers elsewhere, the tiny unincorporated territory in the middle of the Pacific ocean hasn't established itself as a trend-setter, and isn't likely to in this matter either.

Reader Reality Check

Who should own the frequent-flyer miles you earn for business trips?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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