When American announced, on June 20, that the next day it would begin collecting a $5 fee for issuing most AAdvantage award tickets, it seemed like the beginning of the end for airline mileage programs.
It wasn't the dollar amount—$5 isn't a deal-breaker for most travelers. What was shocking and dispiriting was that American had blithely compromised one of the core principles of loyalty programs. As I opined at the time, "The new policy marks the end of widely available, truly free travel awards at the industry's first and largest mileage program."
Here we are, four months later, and the fee has unaccountably disappeared. The original announcement on American's website now reads: "We're sorry, but the page you have requested could not be found. It may have expired." The charge is no longer listed among the airline's many nuisance fees. There was no press release announcing the rollback. AAdvantage members received no notice of a policy change. Nothing.
It's as though it never happened.
But it did. American imposed a fee, apparently reconsidered, and then canceled it. When I queried American on the matter, a spokesperson replied as follows: "It is correct that American did recently remove the $5 award processing fee for booking award tickets on AA.com. We did not issue a formal announcement for this."
So why the silence? One can only guess at the real reason, but the natural assumption is that American was simply too embarrassed to admit its own mistake. It's also likely that American was on the receiving end of complaints from customers. How many complaints? We don't know, and American's not telling.
While the policy change is an obvious plus for consumers, American's handling of it is troubling. It's another example of the lack of honesty and transparency that pervades the airline industry generally, and frequent flyer programs particularly. The airlines tell consumers what they choose to tell them, when they choose to tell them, if they choose to tell them.
So where do things stand now as far as truly free award tickets go?
Delta and Northwest still have fuel surcharges in effect for award tickets, despite the fact that fuel prices have dropped by half since their July highs. And US Airways' award ticketing fees—$25 for domestic, $50 for international—remain in place as well.
Perhaps they'll discontinue those fees. Perhaps not. Perhaps they tell us when they do. But perhaps not.