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I Feel Misled by My Airline’s Mile Program; What Can I Do?

SmarterTravel

Dear Tim,

My wife and I are vacation travelers that fly about four times a year. Somehow, I got hooked on Continental Airlines a few years back. I like their service, the number of nonstops, etc. So a few years ago, I got the Chase Continental credit card and have been building up miles ever since. We are just a middle-class working family that tries to keep travel expenses to a minimum.

I tried to use Continental recently for a trip to St. Thomas. The website said it would cost 35,000 miles. When I called to book, the phone rep said it would be 70,000 miles because of the demand. Doesn’t this seem a bit ridiculous?

Then while talking with a friend yesterday, he told me that Continental’s OnePass program is the worst-rated program there is! That’s when I realized I had to do something. How do I rally the OnePass members to speak up and be heard by Continental?

Tom

Dear Tom,

Judging from the number of similar (and oftentimes considerably less polite) complaints I hear from other disgruntled mileage-program members, the issue you raise is the industry’s most prominent dirty not-so-little secret. It also happens to be a pet peeve of mine.

How big an issue is it?

It’s serious enough that if airlines fail to address the problem, it has the potential to seriously erode the lure of mileage programs, and could even reduce the programs to nonfactors in the travel-purchase equation.

There are, in my estimation, two interrelated developments at play here. First, the major airlines reduced capacity in the aftermath of 9/11 to accommodate the downturn in demand for air travel. As demand rebounded, airlines were slow to add back capacity, resulting in jam-packed planes on all but the least desirable routes.

The proof of that scarce availability is the airlines’ robust load factors (the percentage of seats occupied) for the most recent month, March. In fact, a number of carriers had their best March ever, with United, Northwest, and JetBlue reporting load factors exceeding 80 percent, and most other airlines reporting loads in the mid- and upper-70s.

The second factor is the airlines’ continuing financial difficulties. To be blunt, the airlines are downright desperate to generate profits. On the cost side, carriers have slashed expenses to the bone. And on the revenue side, the airlines’ nickel and diming, in the form of fees for everything from paper tickets to in-flight snacks, has become the stuff of urban legend and New Yorker cartoons.

(The aforementioned high loads do not, it should be pointed out, guarantee a return to profitability for the mainline carriers, since average ticket prices remain stubbornly low.)

Taken together, the result is both fewer available seats for frequent flyer program members, and more resistance to giving away those few seats in exchange for miles if there’s the remotest chance of a paying passenger taking those spots.

So when consumers approach the airline to which they’ve sworn allegiance, with their hard-earned miles in hand, expecting reasonable access to the reward for which they’ve diligently saved, they increasingly find themselves stonewalled. They learn either that there are no award seats available or, as in your case, that there are no restricted award seats but if they’re willing to part with twice as many miles, there are unrestricted award seats to be had.

Isn’t this bait and switch? Legally, it probably isn’t. But inasmuch as most loyalty program participants have as their goal restricted awards, and to the extent that airlines fail to deliver on that implicit promise, consumers feel hoodwinked. Understandably.

So much for the how and why of the problem. The next question: What can be done to fix it?

Unfortunately there is no single definitive remedy for these grievances. If there were, they would have been fixed already and we’d be discussing exotic award locales instead of questioning the value of miles.

Any solution will likely come about as a result of consumers making it clear to the airlines that the programs are falling short of their expectations. But no single letter will be the silver bullet. Rather it will be the combined effect of thousands of messages on that theme that will ultimately move the airlines to change their ways.

Sending your complaint to a travel journalist, as you have done, is certainly a step in that direction.

By all means, file a complaint with the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division. While the DOT’s oversight of loyalty programs remains weak, they have at least begun tracking program-related complaints. In the most recent Air Travel Consumer Report, frequent flyer-related complaints are up 55 percent year over year, from 20 incidents in February 2003 to 31 in February 2004. Clearly these numbers grossly underreport the real extent of the problem, but they are indicative of a worsening problem.

Or, consider filing a complaint through PlanetFeedback, which forwards feedback to the company named in the complaint (or compliment), and grades companies based on consumer input. Continental rates a C at PlanetFeedback, with a full 12.9 percent of complaints related to frequent flyer program issues.

For those who want to lead (or join) an all-out crusade, the model of consumer pushback is SaveSkyMiles, the Web-based initiative launched by disaffected members of Delta’s program.

And finally, there’s the old chestnut: Voice your displeasure by shopping elsewhere. Clearly, it’s sensible to stop patronizing companies that don’t meet your expectations. But if you leave it at that, the company has no way of knowing that they lost your business for a specific reason. So I always recommend that withholding business be part of a larger effort that includes filing a written complaint.

None of the above will get you to St. Thomas for 35,000 miles, now or in the near future. But if enough travelers voice their discontent, long enough and loudly enough, we might just see an increase in available award seats someday in our lifetime.

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