For 27 years, the basic sales proposition of frequent flyer programs was simple: Be loyal to airline X and its marketing partners and, in return, you will be rewarded with a free ticket.
Today, the "free ticket" part of that promise is in danger of going the way of the pterodactyl.
The most recent set of redemption fees imposed by American, Delta, and US Airways for simply issuing a frequent flyer award ticket will almost certainly be matched by other airlines, making truly free tickets the rare exception rather than the industry standard.
But redemption fees are only the latest in what has become a rat's nest of extra charges to participate in mileage programs.
Following is a list of charges being assessed by one or more airlines for various program-related activities:
1) Service fees for booking awards by phone
Airlines charge as much as $35 to make award reservations by phone.
2) Rush fees
To have award tickets issued within seven, 14, or 21 days of departure, program members now pay as much as $150.
3) Award ticket change fees
Be prepared to pay up to $150 to make changes to an award ticket.
4) Mileage reinstatement fee
Unable to use an award ticket and want to redeposit the miles in your account? A processing fee of up to $150 will apply.
5) Reactivation fee
Some airlines permit expired miles to be reactivated, for a fee.
American charges $50 for every 5,000 miles, plus a $30 account processing fee per transaction. US Airways charges between $50 to reinstate one to 4,999 miles and $400 for 400,000 or more miles.
6) Upgrade surcharges
American charges a $150 co-payment in addition to miles for upgrades on Hawaii flights, and $300 for upgrades on various international flights.
7) Redemption fee
Most members of American's program now pay at least $5 for every award ticket issued. And US Airways will begin charging all members of its program redemption fees of between $25 and $50 as of August 6.
8) Fuel surcharge for award tickets
So far, Delta is the only airline that has announced plans to impose redemption fees specifically keyed to fuel prices, ranging from $25 for domestic to $50 for international tickets.
With so many fees making the programs potentially expensive propositions, the question naturally arises: Is it still worthwhile to participate in airline programs?
There's no simple answer. But one school of thought, ably represented by George Hobica, founder of our sister site, Airfarewatchdog.com, would have consumers abandoning mileage programs altogether. Hobica's advice: "Cash in those miles! And beware of expiration. Miles are expiring faster than ever unless you have some activity in your account. And then look into a cash-back credit card rather than a mile-producing one."
If consumers follow Hobica's advice, airlines will have taxed their programs to death and their convoluted fee charts will be moot.