YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Business Travel

More Miles for Same Rewards

Airlines are tightening frequent-flier programs by upping the 'price' that travelers must pay to reach some of their favorite awards.

March 31, 2004|Charles Lockwood | Special to The Times

THEY give with one hand, and they take away with the other.

Those who play the frequent-flier game know that the rewards can be great. Book your ticket online and get 1,000 miles. Apply for a credit card and get several thousand more. Refinance your house, and the kingdom is very nearly yours.

It's that very generosity that's causing a wave of stinginess among airlines.

Last year, U.S. passengers redeemed more than 500 billion miles in free tickets and upgrades, but U.S. carriers gave out 1.5 trillion miles, said Randy Petersen, publisher of InsideFlyer, the frequent-flier monthly magazine and website.

So the airlines have recently instituted a variety of changes. They boosted the "price" in miles for many favorite travel awards. Among the increases:

* Continental and Northwest raised the cost of their capacity-controlled business-class ticket from North America to Hawaii from 60,000 to 75,000 miles.

* British Airways, which has 2 million U.S. members, boosted the free business-class ticket from North America to London from 80,000 to 100,000 miles, and for first class from 100,000 to 150,000.

* Some carriers have been "devaluing" miles by restricting the type of domestic and international tickets that could be upgraded by miles. For instance, you can no longer upgrade the cheapest international coach fares to business class on Continental, Delta and United, said Matthew Bennett, publisher of, a site that caters to frequent and first-class fliers.

But the free ride, while more difficult to obtain, is far from over.

Fliers should continue to benefit from the airlines' needs to keep revenues up while neutralizing new competition. (Frequent-flier programs actually produce revenue -- nearly $2 billion last year, Petersen said -- because they sell millions of miles a year to their partners such as credit card companies.) Rather than engaging in costly fare wars that no carrier wins, the airlines continue to award bonus miles or free upgrades to travelers -- and they're usually business travelers -- who buy unrestricted full-fare tickets. Furthermore, the so-called "legacy carriers" are using those miles as bait as they go head to head with Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest and other discount carriers, which now account for 24% of U.S. flights.

But that doesn't mean the awards will be any easier to get.

Certain carriers have started to recalculate how true road warriors achieve "elite status," which has mileage bonuses, special check-in and security lines, and priority access to the bulkhead and emergency exit seats in coach with more legroom. Previously, elite status was earned simply by flying a set number of miles within a calendar year. On United, for example, it was 25,000 for United Mileage Plus Premier, 50,000 for Premier Executive and 100,000 for Premier Executive 1K.

"Now, the airlines want to reward passengers who contribute the most to their profits, not simply buy the cheapest tickets each time," said Bennett of "Continental and Delta, for example, generally award only 0.5 mile toward elite status for each flown mile on discounted coach tickets, while offering a full 1 mile for the member's regular mileage account."

When Continental announced these changes, many of its most loyal business travelers were so annoyed that the airline amended its policy, saying that discounted tickets purchased at its website would still earn 1 mile toward elite status in 2004. The next year, such tickets will earn only 0.5 mile toward elite status.

American and United, however, have so far kept their elite requalification policies basically unchanged in 2004. A discounted ticket still earns 1 mile toward elite status on both airlines.

Where do all these changes leave the business traveler? Even though no one can predict with certainty, Bennett believes the party is far from over. "Get ready for another great year for accumulating mileage and free tickets as the major carriers use their programs to compete against the discount carriers," he said.

Just be sure to plan all those free trips well in advance. Otherwise, you'll have plenty of miles, but nothing to spend them on.



Where to call to cash in your chips

Here is a list of selected national and international airlines. In some cases, an airline may not have its own mileage award program; it may partner with another airline.

(Note: An "ff" after a telephone number denotes "frequent flier.")

Air Canada

(888) 247-2262 reservations

(800) 361-5373 ff

Air France

(800) 237-2747 reservations

(800) 375-8723 ff

Alaska Airlines

(800) 252-7522 reservations

(800) 654-5669 ff travel on Alaska

(800) 307-6912 ff travel on partner airlines

Aloha Airlines

(800) 367-5250 reservations/ff

America West Airlines

(800) 235-9292 reservations

(800) 247-5691 ff

American Airlines

American Eagle

(800) 433-7300 reservations

(800) 882-8880 ff

Los Angeles Times Articles