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Why Didn’t United Give Me Miles for the Route I Flew?

SmarterTravel

Dear Tim,

Last month I flew from Seattle to Germany, via United’s flight 916. We connected through Dulles and required a layover and a plane change. United, however, considers this to be one flight between Seattle and Frankfurt, based on it assigning only one flight number. Hence, frequent flyer mileage credited to me (each way) was 5,100 miles, as though a theoretical polar route was flown. Seattle to Dulles is 2,306 air miles, and Dulles to Frankfurt is 4,080 miles—a total of 6,386 miles.

How does United justify this cheapskate approach? When I contacted their Mileage Plus desk, I was told essentially, “Tough, this is the way we’ve always done it.”

R.H.

Dear R.H.,

United’s approach to awarding miles for connecting flights operated under the same flight number is the same as most other airlines’. As you discovered, the programs award mileage for the nonstop distance between the origin and departure cities, rather than the flown distance, which would be the sum of the two or more connecting legs.

So United can use the handy all-purpose excuse: “We’re just following industry practice.” You and I are left to wonder why and how this policy became the industry standard. It’s tempting to assume that the reason is cheapness on the airlines’ part. After all, the nonstop mileage will always be less than the sum of the miles flown on connecting flights. But is it that simple?

I contacted several frequent flyer program managers seeking an answer. I hoped that someone would know someone who knows someone else who was actually present at a meeting, 25 years or so ago, where the options were debated and the current policy was decided.

Unfortunately, my inquiries came to naught. No one could say how the policy came about. Nor were they sure what the original rationale was. And whoever made the decision to adopt the policy is long gone.

Notwithstanding the lack of corroboration, I think I know at least part of the reason the policy exists. A program that allowed frequent flyers to earn the flown miles for each leg of connecting flights would encourage just that: the use of multiple linked flights, instead of nonstops, in order to maximize miles.

While the airlines obviously have an interest in limiting the number of miles they give away, they have an even greater interest in encouraging their customers to use the most efficient routing for their trips. The reason is that it costs the airline less in jet fuel and administrative and other costs to transport passengers by the shortest route—in other words, on nonstop flights. Unfortunately for the flyer who must utilize connecting flights, the end result is more hassles but not more miles.

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