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Double (mileage) trouble

SmarterTravel

Have you found it almost impossible to score a frequent flyer seat at the award levels the airlines tout most widely? Apparently, quite a few of you would answer, “yes.”

Here, for example, is a recent message: “I have been unable to find any ‘free’ economy tickets on Northwest to Europe for next summer at the advertised rate of 50,000 miles. However, there seem to be lots of seats available at a ‘double rate’ of 100,000 miles. Why are airlines allowed to advertise 50,000 miles in their literature, but only show 100,000 miles seats? I started looking on-line at the 330 days mark and continued to do so daily plus called in every week for several months. I finally gave up and bought tickets on SAS.”

The answer to almost any “why” question about the airlines is “because they can,” and this one is no exception. Here’s a bit of background.

The fine print

Following a few early—and successful—lawsuits from frequent flyers, the big airlines have all hired the best legal talent available to tweak the fine print in their programs to avoid future challenges. The net result is that the airlines hold all the cards: You don’t really “own” your accumulated miles, so you can’t sue to recover them no matter what your airline does. The miles have no cash value other than that which the airlines choose to give you in any given transaction. Moreover, when you enroll (or renew) in these programs, you sign away any rights of ownership or possession you might think you have.

Promises: Implied, not delivered

The airlines are fond of featuring the “standard” award schedules, and they imply you’ll be able to travel around the 48 states for 25,000 miles (even fewer, on short trips with some lines), to Hawaii for 35,000 miles, or to Europe for 40,000 to 60,000 miles. They imply these promises, but they don’t ever state them as true promises. And, in fact, they often fail to deliver on their implied promise—especially on trips to the most popular destinations. Is this practice misleading? I’d say it is. But it’s just as legal as another highly deceptive practice; advertising fares at half their real price as “each way based on round-trip purchase.”

The net result: The big lines shower you with offers of miles but shut off the supply of seats to, at best, a trickle. No wonder so many frequent flyers are angry, and no wonder so many of them have switched to collecting other sorts of loyalty rewards.

Double … or more

For an assured seat to a popular destination, you generally have to use at least double miles. All of the big lines offer such an option. Here, for example, are the mileage requirements for limited-seat and any-seat award round-trips for three of the most popular awards (expressed in 000’s of miles):

Coach limited seats Coach any seat Premium limited seats (1) Premium any seat (1)
Domestic 48
American 25 50 45 90
Continental 25 50 45 90
Delta 25 50 45 90
Northwest 25 50 45 90
United 25 50 45 90
US Airways 25 50 50 100
Hawaii
American 35 70 60 120
Continental 35 70 75 150
Delta 35 70 75 150
Northwest 35 70 75 150
United 35 70 75 150
US Airways 35 70 70 140
Europe
American 40/60 (2) 100 90 180
Continental 50 100 100 250
Delta 50 95 100 250
Northwest 50 100 100 200
United 50 100 80 180
US Airways 50 100 80 160

(1) Premium refers to first class on most domestic flights, business class to Europe.
(2) American’s award is 40K off-peak, 60K peak

In most cases, the credit required for an any-seat award is double the credit for a limited-seat award. I’ve highlighted the few key instances where that isn’t the case:

  • Delta gives you a small break for a domestic any-seat award—95K rather than double the limited-seat award.
  • Continental, Delta, and United all ask for more than double the limited-seat award for a business class any-seat award to Europe. United’s premium isn’t much, but the 250K requirements on Continental and Delta are really onerous. (As an additional quibble: if Delta posts its any-seat award levels on its website, I couldn’t find it.)
  • As far as I can tell, no big line offers the any-seat option for award trips on any of its “partner” lines.

Why (in case you care)

To those of you who like to explore the “why” of airline behavior, this situation is clearer than many. Airlines sell credit to a whole range of program partners—banks, merchants, and such—for one to two cents a mile. And, at those prices, selling seats by selling miles nets them more money than selling those same seats at advertised fares. The any-seat coach 48-state award, for example, is 50K miles on each of the lines. If they get no more than one cent a mile, that means they collect at least $500 for the miles required for the award, and their take at higher per-mile prices could be as much as $1,000. In today’s fare environment, that’s more than they get at their lowest published fares.

What you can do

No matter how “unfair” you might consider the big lines’ frequent flyer policies, the only thing you can do about it is vote with your feet—and forget the miles. Switch from legacy lines to low-fare lines. Switch from airline-sponsored credit cards to cards that earn cash discounts, buy tickets, or give better deals on gasoline or other purchases.

As to using the miles you already have, unless you’re willing to be extremely flexible, figure on using the any-seat award levels. In effect, that choice devalues your mileage accrual by 50 percent or more. But if you can’t find any limited-seat awards, your credit is effectively worthless, so half-value is better than nothing.

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