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Introducing One-Way and Mix-and-Match Awards

It seems like a simple enough concept: A one-way award flight should be available for half as many frequent flyer miles as a round-trip flight. An airline flight is not like a car rental, after all, where the vehicle must be returned to the original rental location. But, no one ever said airline program rules were simple.

Since airline mileage programs began 26 years ago, award tickets have been offered in round-trip form. So when plans call for a one-way flight, travelers must cash in the number of miles required for a round-trip and throw away the unwanted ticket coupon. This nonsensical rule has its roots in the airlines’ famously convoluted pricing scheme for paid tickets. Advance-purchase coach tickets, which account for the great majority of ticket sales, are only available for two-way travel on most airlines.

In addition to forcing consumers to effectively overpay for one-way flights, the round-trip-only policy has other consumer-unfriendly effects as well. All too often no award seats are available at the restricted level for one leg of the trip. In this situation, the would-be traveler is forced to redeem twice as many miles for an unrestricted award ticket. Another source of frustration: Miles generally cannot be used to travel in coach on one leg of a trip and in first class on the other leg.

There are, then, two separate but related issues. First is the availability of one-way awards, and second is the pricing of those one-ways. Ideally, frequent flyer program members would be able to use miles for either one-way or round-trip flights, and a one-way would cost half as many miles as a comparable round-trip.

While travelers’ hopes remain mostly unfulfilled, several airlines have modified their award ticketing policies to make one-way travel a more viable option. Hopefully, the changes have created sufficient momentum to move the industry standard in a friendlier, more rational direction.

Mix-and-match awards

Among the largest airlines, Delta now allows members of its SkyMiles program to combine restricted and unrestricted awards, as well as coach and first-class awards, on the same itinerary. For example, members can book a domestic flight using restricted first class on the outbound and unrestricted coach on the return. The price would be 47,500 miles (half the 45,000 miles normally required for a restricted first-class round-trip, plus half the 50,000 miles for unrestricted coach).

Delta isn’t alone in allowing award mixing and matching. US Airways permits Dividend Miles members to combine Mileage Saver (restricted), Premium (unrestricted), coach, and first-class segments on the same itinerary for flights booked on Northwest allows its members to combine restricted and unrestricted award segments.

Note, though, that while these policies afford increased flexibility within a round-trip itinerary and fair pricing, frequent flyers on these airlines still cannot book one-way award flights for fewer miles than a round-trip requires.

Introducing one-way awards

Last month, Alaska Airlines revised its award policy to permit Mileage Plan members to book one-way award travel on Alaska and Horizon Air for half the number of miles required for a comparable round-trip. Like Delta, Alaska gives members the ability to mix and match restricted and unrestricted awards, combining coach and first class on the same trip. But unlike Delta, Alaska took the next logical step, allowing its members the option of booking single-leg trips.

Yet another variation on the theme was introduced by Midwest within weeks of Alaska’s new policy announcement. Under the revised scheme, Midwest Miles members can opt to redeem 30,000 miles for a one-way unrestricted award. The one-way costs 5,000 more miles than it would if Midwest had elected to simply halve the round-trip price of 50,000 miles.

A one-way restricted award was already part of the Midwest program, priced at 15,000 miles versus 25,000 for a restricted round-trip award ticket. While the ability to redeem miles for one-way awards is an undeniable step forward for members of Midwest’s program, being asked to pay more than half the number of miles required for a round-trip award is at least a half-step in the wrong direction.

If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. The solution is an industry standard that fully comports with consumers’ commonsense notions of simplicity, flexibility, and fairness. That’s the policy adopted by Alaska, and should be the model for the rest of the industry.

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