Jewish World Review Feb. 6, 2003 / 4 Adar I, 5763

Christopher Elliott

JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
James Glassman
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

No Point in Collecting Miles?

Most of today's airline-mileage incentives are convoluted, mysterious and elusive. Maybe that's why travelers are running their accounts dry | A few days ago, I got a letter from US Airways' frequent flier program offering magazine subscriptions for my miles. In the past, I would have preferred to hold on to my hard-earned points for an award ticket.

Not now. This year, with US Airways and United in bankruptcy and other airlines struggling, I cashed in as many of my points as possible for subscriptions to Time, Entertainment Weekly and Smithsonian (titles I wouldn't necessarily pay full price for but don't mind having around).

When US Airways filed for bankruptcy protection in August, it promised that my points were safe. To keep me flying, it offered me triple miles to take its shuttle. United Airlines, which is also operating under Chapter 11 protection, will double my miles on any route.

Talk about generous. But throwing more points my way won't allay my worries or, for that matter, the concerns of the thousands of air travelers I deal with every week as National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman. My patience - our patience - has already been worn thin by loyalty programs that promise the world but fail to deliver award seats and upgrades when they're wanted.

In fact, last week a group of angry customers sued Delta Air Lines over its frequent flier program, claiming the company is putting too many restrictions on rewards.

They're right: Most of today's airline-mileage incentives are convoluted, mysterious and elusive. Maybe that's why travelers are skeptical of the latest mileage free-for-all and reluctant to take advantage of these magnanimous offers. Maybe it's the maddening makeup of the programs that airlines need to address.

Rewards programs are so confusing that no one, not even the experts, understands them completely. A cursory look at the average program might leave you wondering why. After all, isn't it as simple as earning points and then spending them? If only. There are blackout dates, award matrixes, volumes of fine print and special fees that you don't find out about until you try to turn your points into an airline ticket.

Carriers also leave out key information about their rewards programs. For example, they neglect to tell us how many award tickets were requested by travelers. They don't tell us how many of the requests were honored or how many were turned down. Nor will they disclose the most popular routes for redeeming points, the most sought-after dates and the preferred flights.

How much is an airline mile worth? The airlines won't say. The vagueness extends to program changes, particularly negative ones. Late last year, when Delta announced a shakeup of SkyMiles, it billed the revised rules as a way to "better align loyalty benefits and rewards with customer revenue." Hidden in the news release was the zinger: The mileage value of a deeply discounted coach ticket - the kind now preferred by many business travelers - had been watered down. Only half of the miles flown would be credited toward earning coveted elite status.

No wonder travelers are jettisoning their rewards points. The programs are so incomprehensible, it's infuriating. According to one poll conducted by loyalty-program consultant Hal Brierley, more than a third of travelers whose preferred carrier is bankrupt United Airlines are accelerating their mileage redemption.

But travelers such as David Kingsley, an attorney in Plantation, Fla., are running some of their mileage accounts dry. He recently cut up his Continental Airlines Visa card and canceled his account because the airline made it more difficult to upgrade to a confirmed business class seat on international flights. "Now I only fly on Continental when I have to," he told me.

Are more miles going to smooth things over? Not a chance. We already have more than enough points. There's a backlog of nearly 8 trillion unredeemed frequent flier miles among U.S. carriers, almost twice as many as there were three years ago.

If airlines want to keep us flying, and collecting points, they need to rethink the way they handle their rewards programs. A good start might be to answer some of the questions we have about our miles.

America's carriers might look to the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), an independent organization that sets accounting standards in the United States, for an example. When the FASB was formed in 1973, corporate financial statements could be confusing and variable, much like the airlines' disclosure on mileage matters today. Standardized reporting let investors compare company earnings, allowing them to make informed decisions about which stocks to buy. That, in turn, boosted credibility in the markets.

Airlines need their own version of FASB, and fast. Only then will loyalty programs become a credible way for the carriers to reward their best customers rather than an exercise in futility that has left many air travelers disillusioned - and ready to dump their miles.

JWR contributor Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman. Click here to visit his site. Click here to sign up for his newsletter. Comment by clicking here.


01/29/03: Are stubby stewardesses affecting the safety of flights?

© 2003, Christopher Elliott