Published on Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Frequent flyers miles: going the way of the Dodo

United Airlines' decision to cancel some frequent flyer accounts may be just the start of airlines eliminating the popular practice, industry observers say.

The Illinois-based airline has 495 million miles of such offerings but announced that at the end of the year it will cancel the Mileage Plus accounts of travelers who haven’t flown on United Redeemed Miles or used their Mileage Plus Visa credit cards during the past 18 months.

United used to let frequent-flier accounts lay dormant for three years before dumping them, which was the previous industry standard, according to news reports.

Cost-cutting is the obvious objective.

US Airways says it will also close mileage accounts that have been inactive for 18 months, as of the end of this month.

Southwest Airlines cancels any freebies that fliers do not use within 24 months. Holdouts like American Airlines are expected to take similar measures, experts say.

"The glory days of the frequent-flier programs are over," said Joe Schwieterman, transportation expert and professor at DePaul University. "With low fares so pervasive, they don't generate the loyalty they used to."

"We are trying to make the program better for our most loyal customers," said United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski. "This also reduces our frequent-flier liability."

Frequent flyer miles were started 25 years ago by American Airlines.

The objective: reward faithful passengers. They have proved in the past to be very successful, say industry experts.

More than 180 million people around the world belong to these programs, estimates Inside Flyer magazine. They are entitled to nearly 10 trillion miles.

Frequent-flier programs have changed over time, with the requirements for redeeming a free ticket becoming more stringent.

But the concept remains a sacred cow among fliers and United risks provoking a customer backlash, said Britt Beemer, chairman and founder of America's Research Group, a consumer behavior and strategic marketing firm based in Charleston, S.C.

And the Dodo? An extinct flightless bird, once a native of the island of Mauritius, discovered by 1698, extinct by 1681.

Report by David Wilkening



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  • Airlines using other ways to erode benefits; warning to travelers

    Having created this benefit to woo customers, airlines are now doing what could be considered something that rhymes with "woo." Rising fees, lowered availability, and increased mileage are but three of the ways this has been done. An example is United - mileage requirements used to be 55K for limited seating and 80K for full privileges to Europe on coach. When I checked recently, it was 100K across the board. Reference to Dodo mistakenly indicates that it was discovered 17 years before extinction! That's almost how I feel about frequent flyer programs. Also, widespread notice should be given to customers of reduced programs, so that they don't feel like dodos!

    By Alan Schlaifer, Wednesday, January 24, 2007

  • Why Bother?

    It is almost impossible to redeem a frequent flyer miles. Since the airlines don't make seats available, why should they care if they pile up indefinitely?

    By Buzz Singer, Wednesday, January 24, 2007

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