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Take action to keep frequent-flier miles

July 22, 2007|James Gilden | Special to The Times

YOU know those frequent-flier miles you worked so hard to accumulate? If you're not vigilant, you'll be kissing your hard-earned miles goodbye by year's end.

Time was you could let your miles sit dormant forever, but now the miles expiration clock has begun ticking faster than ever.

"There was a hodgepodge of [expiration] policies until 1999, when most major carriers adopted a three-year rule," says Tim Winship, editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com.

Then US Airways announced last fall that inactive frequent-flier mileage would expire in 18 months, down from 36. Delta set a 24-month clock. United and American Airlines then implemented an 18-month expiration.

Keeping your miles from expiring is easy enough. You must generate some sort of activity within the airline's specified time frame. (See box.)

"There are hundreds of ways to keep your account active," said Robin Urbanski, United spokeswoman.

Why the airlines are doing this is a reflection of the success of their customer loyalty programs.

United, for example, had about 508.8 billion outstanding miles at the end of 2006. About 70.5 billion of those miles, or 14%, would go unused and probably expire under the new policy. At 25,000 miles per ticket, that would be nearly 3 million domestic flight awards or, at 2 cents a mile, the common measure of the miles' value, about $1.4 billion.

And that's just at United.

Randy Petersen, publisher of the FlyerTalk frequent-flier forum website (www.flyertalk.com), estimated that 10 trillion miles were outstanding at the beginning of 2006. If 14% were allowed to expire (a big "if"), the cumulative loss to consumers would be about $28 billion.

The loss seems less dramatic for individual travelers. In researching this column, I checked in on one of my orphan frequent-flier accounts. Like most good frequent fliers, I generally stick to one program; mine is United's. Between it and its Star Alliance partners, I have flown 618,287 paid miles.

But I have accumulated miles in other programs, including American's. A check of my account at www.aa.com found 2,000 miles that would soon expire without some activity. Alas, I couldn't scare up any miles from program partners or other sources.

But Lee Van Doren, an IT consultant from Woodinville, Wash., has more orphans than Father Flanagan. Van Doren travels frequently to Baltimore on business and accumulates more than 100,000 miles a year on United, qualifying him for 1K, its most elite frequent-flier status. But he also has accounts with American, Continental, Delta, US Airways and Alaska Airlines.

"For United, I don't have to worry about it," he says. "But I am concerned about all these other little accounts, and I'd like to keep them going."

When some miles in his American account were set to expire under the old 36-month rule, he started trying to get some retroactive credit from hotel stays but learned it had already been credited.

"I can't even keep track of them in a three-year period," he says. "An 18-month period? It's going to be a real challenge."

So the airlines hope.

"Getting those liabilities off of their books very simply makes their books look better," Winship says. Complaints about the change have been muted, says Winship, who sees the shortened expiration as a sign of their continued devaluation.

"It's not that hard to earn or redeem a mile," he says. "That's true, at least for those people who are more or less actively engaged in the programs.

"But if you take that sort of blase attitude, eventually you won't have a program left to complain about."

Meanwhile, where's my boarding pass from that Iberia flight from last year? Maybe there's still time to use it toward my American miles.

Contact James Gilden at www.theinternettraveler.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Quick, before they go

* Take a short, quick flight on the airline or one of its alliance partners.

* Redeem miles for a flight or another award such as a magazine subscription.

* Use a credit card that awards frequent-flier miles.

* Stay at a hotel that offers miles in the carrier's program.

* Send flowers through FTD; in some programs you earn miles to keep your account alive, but be sure to ask first.

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