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Mileage Programs Need Regulating, and Now!

Airlines are consistently among the country’s least trusted and most reviled companies. And they’re not getting any better—the DOT’s 2014 Air Travel Consumer Report showed a year-over-year increase of 17.8 percent in complaints lodged with the Department.

Sources of friction between the airlines and their customers run the gamut, from misleading advertising to shoddy service to nuisance fees to delayed flights. But one of the richest sources of travelers’ ire has been the airlines’ loyalty programs. The complaints question the programs operators’ honesty, transparency, and fairness.

While there’s no single issue fueling consumer dissatisfaction with mileage programs, the most frequent complaint concerns award-seat availability. The airlines routinely boast that free tickets can be had for, say, 25,000 miles, the price for a restricted domestic coach award. But really, how many seats are available for that price?

The award-availability issue raises two related problems: truth in advertising and transparency. The airlines play fast and loose with ad headlines promising “free” tickets, burying in the fine print a host of cash costs associated with award redemption. And how can consumers evaluate airlines’ promises without access to data showing success rates for booking award tickets—data the airlines possess but decline to make public?

Another point of dissatisfaction: mileage expiration policies. Legal, sure. But fair? And if it is fair to summarily wipe out someone’s miles, do the airlines do enough to notify program members that their miles will soon expire?

And the fees, oh my! Fees to book awards within 21 days of departure; fees to redeposit miles; fees to book partner awards by phone, even when they can’t be booked on the airline’s own website; fuel surcharges. The list goes on.

Finally, there’s the issue of advance notice: How far in advance should airlines warn program members of upcoming changes that will affect the value of their miles? Left to their own devices, as they have been, airlines today give little advance notice, and sometimes no notice at all.

Although some airlines’ policies and practices are less egregious than others’, frequent-flyer programs seem to be treated industry-wide as ethical dead zones, where anything and everything goes. There’s little chance that the airlines will take the initiative themselves to self-correct. Which leaves government regulators as the last, best hope for relief.

Reader Reality Check

Should the government subject airline loyalty programs to stricter oversight and control?

Which aspects of the programs in particular need regulating?

This article originally appeared on

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