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More airlines let frequent flier miles dry up faster

Wed., Jan. 31, 2007

Travelers who infrequently use their frequent-flier accounts may have to kiss their miles goodbye.

A growing number of airlines are establishing stricter policies that eliminate miles in inactive accounts.

Many travelers who hoped to some day parlay the miles into free flights or use them for a seat upgrade are furious.

The changes:

“US Airways. The carrier begins a new policy today that will delete all the miles of frequent-flier club members who haven’t earned or redeemed Dividend Miles in 18 months, down from the current 36 months. It means accounts inactive since mid-2005 will be nullified.

“United Airlines. Beginning next Dec. 31, United will make the same change as US Airways.

“Delta Air Lines. Last month, Delta began erasing all miles in SkyMiles accounts that had been dormant for two calendar years. Its policy had been to permit 36 months of inactivity before miles would disappear.

“Frequent-flier miles are a liability on the company books,” says Barbara Beyer, president of airline consultant Avmark. “The airlines really want to get rid of them as they clean up their balance sheets.”

But the carriers may also be alienating potential customers.

“I hate the concept of expiring miles,” says Josh Perlstein, president of a marketing and advertising company in Atlanta whose credits expired in AirTran’s frequent-flier program.

Perlstein says he still flies on AirTran, but avoids the airline when competitors offer the same price and convenience.

Strict, or not

Of 16 U.S. airlines contacted by USA TODAY, only Continental and Aloha said miles do not expire in their frequent-flier members’ accounts. Continental has a written policy stating that miles can expire if none are earned in 18 months, but the airline doesn’t act on it, says spokesman David Messing.

AirTran and JetBlue have the strictest expiration policies, with credits or miles expiring one year after they are earned.

Airlines’ expiration policies have nuances. For example, some carriers require miles be added to keep accounts alive. For others, adding or redeeming miles will keep the account alive.

Members of many airlines’ frequent-flier clubs can prevent their miles from expiring by cashing some in for a magazine subscription. Or they can make an online purchase from a retail store that’s affiliated with an airline and provides bonus miles.

The moves by airlines to tighten mileage expiration policies may not stick, says Andrew Watterson, of Mercer Management Consulting.

“Like airline prices, mileage expiration policies seem to go up and down based on the strength of the travel market,” the airline consultant says. “It wasn’t long ago when airlines were competing to lengthen the expiration period.”

But that doesn’t console frequent fliers such as Jerry Quintiliani, of Peoria, Ill., who isn’t happy about the new policies. “I think it stinks, but what choice is there?” says the sales manager for a chemical company.

Quintiliani, who says about 20,000 of his American Airlines AAdvantage miles expired, says miles “have become nearly useless” anyway, because airlines have so few free seats available to vacation destinations.

Notification issues

Frequent fliers complain that airlines aren’t giving them enough, or any, notice before they eliminate miles from dormant accounts. Some US Airways fliers, for example, say they received no notice before their miles expired.

Midwest Airlines mails a notice to its frequent-flier club members who haven’t earned miles for at least 30 months. The members are reminded about the airline’s 36-month expiration policy and are offered a bargain fare to any city it flies to, says marketing director Steve Mathwig.

“We don’t want to expire their miles, and would rather have them fly with us again and stay active in the program,” he says.


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