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On partner airlines, earning miles is a no-win game

The disconnect between frequent flyer promises and performance has never been greater. On the one hand, the airlines and their partners flood us with an ever-increasing deluge of miles; on the other, they make it almost impossible for us to find any “free” seats to the places where and when we really want to fly. And all too often, what the hyped promises giveth, the fine print taketh away.

A case in point: credit from partner-line and code-shared flights. One reader recently wrote about problems in getting his airline to give him credit for flights on partner airlines. Sadly, the real situation is more complicated than you might realize. And without making some phone calls you often can’t tell whether or not you actually earn the credit.

Slow credit or no credit?

If you aren’t getting the credit you expect, you first have to determine the root cause of your problem. Is the airline simply slow to process your request, or are you not really eligible for the credit you thought you had earned? If the problem is slow paperwork, your only solution is to keep bugging. But there’s also a chance that your partner-line flights didn’t qualify for the credit you thought you’d get.

No credit or low credit?

When you fly a U.S. legacy airline, you almost always receive full credit—one mile for each mile you fly—either in the airline’s own program or the program of a U.S. partner line. The only tickets that don’t qualify for full credit are those issued at unpublished fares, including Priceline, Hotwire, charter, industry-discount, consolidator, and such. You may get a bonus of up to 100 percent for flying on first class or other expensive tickets, but you always get the basic miles, usually with a 500-mile minimum. That’s been the formula since the programs started, and it’s what we generally expect.

But many foreign airlines—lines that came to frequent flyer programs much later than the U.S. legacy lines—adopted different rules. Air Canada, for example, doles out only 50 percent of the miles to Aeroplan members when they fly on any of its eight lowest fare classes. Some foreign lines give no credit at all on tickets at their lowest published fares.

Partner confusion

Foreign airline stinginess carries over to partnership agreements. American’s website, for example, notes travelers on the cheapest economy excursions earn no American credit at all on partners Cathay Pacific or Air Pacific; 25 percent of the miles flown on British Airways, 30 percent on Iberia, 50 percent on El Al or Qantas, and 75 percent on JAL. Delta’s site says you earn no Delta credit when you fly economy on partner-line Malaysia Airlines.

Most legacy-line sites provide lists of booking codes that do earn credit on partner airlines—full credit in most cases beyond those noted. But good luck finding whether any given low-fare flight you book through a partner line’s site earns or doesn’t earn credit. American’s site says you earn 100 percent of the miles on Aer Lingus, for example, but it also says you earn that mileage only in booking classes Y, H, and K. When I checked the Aer Lingus website for the lowest available New York-Dublin fare, however, I couldn’t find reference to any of those booking classes. Instead, the “fare rules” box on Aer Lingus’ site for the cheapest flight shows the booking class “RUSLOBE.” Is that included in Y, H, or K, or is it something entirely different? I haven’t a clue. There’s no way I or anyone else could decipher from that display whether I would receive full American miles for that flight at that fare, partial miles, or none at all.

When you book on some of the big online sites, you can’t even find a booking code at all. I checked that Aer Lingus flight on Orbitz, for example, and didn’t even find the elusive RUSLOBE.

Here’s another one. For partner earnings on Singapore, Delta’s website says you get “actual miles flown” in economy class. But when you log onto Singapore’s own site, and check out its special “sale” deals to Asia or Europe, the “fare rules” box specifically states those fares do not provide any frequent flyer miles at all. Clearly, that limitation applies to miles in Singapore’s own program, but does it also apply to partner Delta? Neither the Delta nor the Singapore website addresses that question.

Overall, United’s site provides the most complete disclosure. It notes reduced credit on the cheapest partner tickets, including none at all on Air New Zealand, 25 percent on LOT or SAS, and discounted flights on Air Canada, as well as lots of exclusions for local flying outside the U.S. But even United’s data are not as clear as they might be. On cheap Singapore tickets, for example, United says you get full credit on any fare, but—as noted above—Singapore says “no credit” in its own program. Which statement prevails? Absent some phone calls, your guess is as good as mine.

The system is broken

All in all, the current online situation is totally unsatisfactory. There is no way, as far as I can tell, to determine whether any given low-fare flight on a foreign airline will earn full, partial, or no credit in its U.S. partner line’s program.

Clearly, if maximum frequent flyer miles are important to you—and you fly on a U.S. legacy line’s international partner—the only way to make sure of getting those miles is to phone the airline and ask about a particular fare. To get full credit, you may have to pay more than the rock-bottom fare, or switch to a different partner airline.

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