What the airlines don't want you to know about frequent flyer miles

The frequent flyer program world has two dirty little secrets.

The first and most prominent of the two is the lack of available award seats.

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The second? Missing mile credit.

A recent Washington Post article gave the subject a rather light once-over, if nothing else reminding mileage collectors that a problem in fact exists.

The article suggests that miles for flights fail to correctly post to program members' accounts about seven percent of the time, due to oversight or errors on the parts of either the program operators or program members.

But of all the programs' many partners, flight miles are the most likely to be accurately tracked and awarded. Capturing and recording frequent flyer member transactions at hotels, rental car companies, and the multitude of non-travel services and retailers is much more error-prone. Which means that the average failure rate is considerably higher than the rate for flights alone.

My best guess is that between 10 and 15 percent of all eligible transactions fail to post to members' accounts initially.

The truth is that only the airlines know for sure what the overall rates are for miscredited miles. And they're not about to make that information public.

In any case, the failure rate is higher than most program members imagine, resulting in the loss of many millions of miles annually.

What to do?

Gary Leff, author of the blog View from the Wing, has the right idea. According to the Post article, he uses a spreadsheet to track the miles he's earned and follows up when he doesn't receive proper credit. "It takes a lot of effort, but the people who play the game are the ones who win. Others don't play and they end up not having the miles to compete for a seat," he said.

I second that.

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