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Disappearing Miles Leave Flyers With Little Recourse

Dear Tim,

As a dedicated Continental Elite I avoid other airlines and only accumulate miles elsewhere when there is no better option. Recently I took a look at my American account and realized that they had inactivated a 42,500-mile chunk of my miles last December and I had never received any notice or warning whatsoever. I don’t think they even sent a notice when they first instituted the 18-month expiration policy, let alone when I was nearing it.

I wrote them and received a magnanimous offer to reinstate my miles for a mere $425!


Dear Louise,

While I don’t have any exact figures, I know that you were not alone in losing miles as a result of the changes that American—and, it should be added, all major airlines—made to their mileage expiration policies in 2007. I have received notes from many other frequent flyers whose experience exactly mirrored yours.

The lost miles raise two interrelated questions. Can American change the policy? And if they do, is it their responsibility to communicate the change to their members?

Both questions are answered unambiguously in American’s terms and conditions, which AAdvantage members implicitly agree to when they enroll in the program.

American reserves for itself the right to change the program at any time, for any reason, as follows:

American Airlines may, among other things, (i) withdraw, limit, modify, or cancel any award; (ii) change program benefits, mileage levels, participant affiliations, conditions of participation, rules for earning, redeeming, retaining or forfeiting mileage credit, or rules for the use of travel awards; or (iii) add travel embargo dates, limit the number of seats available for award travel … or otherwise restrict the continued availability of travel awards or special offers. American Airlines may make any one or more of these changes at any time even though such changes may affect your ability to use the mileage credit or awards that you have already accumulated.

And it is the responsibility of the member to stay current with program policies and rules.

You are responsible for reading the AAdvantage Program Terms and Conditions, additional member information, AAdvantage newsletter/s and account summaries online at in order to understand your rights, responsibilities, and status under the AAdvantage program. American Airlines may amend its rules of the Program at any time without notice.

So as a practical matter, you have no recourse but to throw yourself on the airline’s mercy. (I have heard of some cases where airlines reinstated expired miles without assessing a fee, but it’s rare.)

As a group, the airlines don’t rank high on consumers’ trust gauge. So it’s tempting to suspect that they cynically under-communicated the policy change in order to lure program members into letting their miles lapse. And there is clear incentive for airlines to erase miles—it reduces the liability carried on their books. And at least some program members will choose to pay to reactivate their miles, generating extra revenue for the airline.

But realistically, there’s just too high a price to pay for such underhanded shenanigans. The public outcry would have badly tarnished American’s reputation. And the loss of business from disaffected customers would have seriously undermined their bottom line.

As an AAdvantage member myself, I know that American publicized the policy change on its website, and in numerous emails sent to active members. They could have done better, but I think they made a good-faith effort to get the word out.

There is a take-away from this incident that goes beyond the issue of expiring miles. Loyalty programs and frequent flyer miles cannot be taken for granted. They are in a continual state of flux, and the changes sometimes put miles at risk.

If you value your miles, give them the attention they require.

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