Are mileage program managers sadists?

Even the freshest-faced travel novice knows that participation in an airline frequent flyer program carries an important caveat: cashing in miles for an award ticket will almost certainly be an exercise in frustration, if not downright futility.

The problems faced by program members trying to redeem their miles has become the stuff of workplace gossip and late-night talk show jokes.

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Which raises the question: Are the airline managers responsible for these programs just clueless? Is it possible that they don't know how exasperated members of their programs have become over the lack of available award seats?

In my capacity as a journalist covering this industry, I have had the opportunity to put that question to a number of mileage program execs over the years. Knowing, presumably, that their remarks were on the record, their responses were predictably restrained.

They downplayed the extent of the problem. They suggested it was a problem at other programs, but not at theirs. They claimed it was an issue fabricated by the media.

In other words, they were unwilling to admit to being aware of an award supply problem, much less discuss possible solutions.

A survey released recently by Jay Sorensen, an industry analyst and consultant, paints a very different picture.

Based on responses from executives representing 53 travel loyalty programs, there is, in fact, a high level of awareness that consumers take a dim view of the programs' award policies.

A full 65% of program managers responding to the survey admitted to recognizing "that consumers are frustrated by the lack of basic reward availability for the entire airline industry."

Nevertheless, 56% reported that they had not increased the supply of award seats during 2006. For 2007, 59% of the respondents predict that they will "selectively or broadly" increase reward seats, while 38% foresee no change.

I'm not sure which is more troubling—the idea that program managers are so out of touch that they can't empathize with the traveling public, or the idea that they recognize their programs' deficiencies but are unwilling to address them.

The latter, it turns out, is closer to the truth.

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