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Amid troubled skies, frequent fliers fret over unused miles

If a carrier goes under, what will happen to its award program? Should passengers cash in now or hope for the best?

March 30, 2003|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

Frequent-flier programs are a family tradition for publishing executive Linda Kaplan.

"My dad put his car lease on his Northwest Airlines Visa card," says the New Yorker, who links her credit cards and phone bills to mileage programs.

Kaplan's hoarded miles include about 50,000 on American and 15,000 on United, both struggling financially. But she's in no hurry to redeem them.

"I'm a Pollyanna, and I feel it's all going to work out," she says of the airlines' problems. "But then, I thought Cyndi Lauper was going to be big and Madonna was going to go by the wayside."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 02, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Pan Am bankruptcy -- A column in Sunday's Travel section incorrectly stated that Pan Am's frequent fliers lost their miles when that airline liquidated in 1991. Delta Airlines honored the miles.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 06, 2003 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Pan Am bankruptcy -- The Travel Insider column "Amid Troubled Skies, Frequent Fliers Fret Over Unused Miles" (March 30) incorrectly stated that Pan Am's frequent fliers lost their miles when that airline liquidated in 1991. Delta Airlines honored the miles.

Tim Winship, editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com, is more pessimistic about the safety of his miles. The Los Angeles resident, who spent about 20 years working in airline award programs, is burning a bunch of American miles for trips this spring and summer to Florida and New York.

"In the past, I would have been on [the Internet] looking to book a cheap flight," he says. Award travel may not be at the top of your to-do list, given world tensions. But some people sitting on a pile of miles from troubled airlines are worried about what will happen to them if the airlines go out of business. Should they spend the miles now or save them?

It's a question without a clear answer. Here's what various experts told me when I posed these questions:

* Will I lose my frequent-flier miles if my airline stops flying?

"The last thing airlines want to do is give up their frequent-flier programs," says Rolfe Shellenberger, who helped design the first one, American AAdvantage, in 1981. That's because the programs are a cheap way to buy loyalty, he says. If an airline stops flying, he would expect at least its partner airlines to honor its members' miles.

But there's no guarantee; airlines can basically change their frequent-flier rules at will, he says.

US Airways and Delta, which allow United's frequent fliers to redeem award travel on them as a partner airline, earlier this month declined to say whether they would honor those miles if United stops flying. "We haven't made a decision," says Delta spokesman Anthony Black. Like United, US Airways has been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Michael Allen, chief operating officer of Back Aviation Solutions, an aviation consulting firm in New Haven, Conn., thinks your miles are fairly safe.

Award programs save airlines a bundle on advertising and generate a wealth of information on fliers' habits, he says. Many airlines would be happy to acquire a bankrupt competitor's best customers, whether by honoring their miles or as part of acquiring the company's assets in bankruptcy court, he says.

The history of miles on bankrupt airlines has been mixed. In the early 1990s, Continental took over bankrupt Eastern's frequent-flier program; American acquired TWA's when it absorbed that airline in a deal that was completed in 2001. But no one took in Pan Am's frequent fliers when it liquidated in 1991, and they lost their miles; ditto for National Airlines' frequent fliers in November.

Consumer activists Winship and Terry Trippler, air traveler advocate for www.cheapseats.com, are worried about the safety of some award miles.

Airlines, after all, don't make money off the seats earned by frequent fliers. Considering the dire state of the industry in general, "it's difficult to imagine any airline today that would think it's fiscally responsible to assume the liability of a frequent-flier program of a bankrupt carrier," Winship says.

If a major airline goes out with a huge liability, "no one is going to purchase it," Trippler says. And there go your miles.

One protection option is AwardGuard, an 11-year-old program that insures frequent-flier miles, up to certain limits, for $119 per year per person; visit www.awardguard.com for details.

* Will other airlines honor my award ticket?

Nervous about losing your miles, you book an award ticket on a troubled airline. Then it stops flying, stranding you. What now?

There's no guarantee another airline will take your ticket.

Under U.S. Department of Transportation rules that were recently extended to February 2004, airlines are required to take passengers stranded by a bankrupt airline as standbys, subject to space and a $25 fee.

But the DOT "has not addressed" the issue of whether award tickets are covered by these rules, says DOT spokesman Bill Mosley, adding, "Airlines are setting their own policies on accepting frequent-flier tickets."

US Airways, for instance, told me it would honor award tickets in this situation. Alaska Airlines said it would do so if the holder of the ticket was an Alaska frequent flier booked on a partner airline; if not, "I don't know what we'd do," said spokesman Jack Walsh. Delta and Southwest didn't have an answer. "It would be premature to say what we would do," Delta's Black said.

* How should I redeem my miles?

With fewer flights in the post-9/11 world, it seems more difficult to book an award ticket, I'm often told. (Figures on this are hard to come by.) Some people are turning to Internet sites, such as www.milepoint.com and www.points.com, which let you exchange or cash in your miles for memberships or products.

But Winship and Trippler agree that to get full value for your miles, it's best to redeem them for award travel. To better your chances for a seat, avoid popular, long-distance routes such as the U.S. mainland to Hawaii; forget holiday, Friday and Sunday flights; and travel off-season.

In the past, frequent fliers were advised to book up to a year ahead to get award seats. But given current uncertainties, it makes sense to try to book closer in, Winship says.

Jane Engle welcomes comments and suggestions but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or e-mail jane.engle@latimes.com.

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