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New mileage expiration policies: Stingy, yes, but what’s the big deal?

It’s all the rage these days: Let’s be angry with the airlines for getting all stingy with their miles. USA Today summarizes the situation well in noting that three of the major airlines—US Airways, United, and Delta—have recently enacted policies that will force many travelers to “kiss their miles goodbye.”

Industry expert and fellow blogger Tim Winship (for whom I have nothing but respect) last week joined the chorus of voices crying out against the airlines, specifically taking on United and its newly announced policy of expiring miles after 18 months of no account activity.

Tim calls United’s stated motivation for the move “questionable at best, laughable at worst.” United, for its part, says the move is aimed at making more award seats available to its most active customers.

Tim goes on say, “If someone hasn’t earned or redeemed a single mile in 18 months, how likely is it that he’s a significant drain on United’s supply of award seats?”

And he’s right, of course. But I must have missed the memo telling me to be outraged, because honestly, I can’t help but wonder: What’s the big deal?

Let me turn this around and put it another way: If someone hasn’t earned or redeemed a single mile in 18 months, just how likely is it that he’s going to miss those miles when they expire?

Not very likely at all.

With so many easy ways to earn and redeem miles, if you can’t find a way to extend the life of your account over the course of a year and a half, chances are you’re probably like my parents: You don’t have any idea how many miles you’ve earned or how to use them.

And another thing. Those of us who observe the travel industry are always complaining about the devaluation of miles, generally assuming that they’ve lost roughly half their value in the past five years or so. I’ll accept that. As I mentioned, there’s a million ways to earn miles these days, most of which don’t even involve flying. Of course miles are worth less than they used to be.

So once again I have to wonder: What’s so bad about cutting back on the number of miles floating around out there just waiting to be used?

Longtime readers of this blog know that I don’t have a terribly high patience level with the airlines, but in a case like this I just have to wonder if we’re all getting worked up over nothing. Those of us who use miles for free travel will still be able to do so and will hardly notice a change. And those who don’t?

I suspect they won’t notice much of a change, either.

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