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FREQUENT-FLIER PROGRAMS: READ THE FINE PRINT

In frequent-flier programs, 1988 was the year of triple mileage, when many participants were spending weekends bouncing around on short trips to "earn" two first-class tickets to Europe or Asia.

This year will probably be the year the airlines experienced a hangover and began to cut back on frequent travel programs.Trans World Airlines, for one, on May 12 abruptly announced the end of its relationship with Japan Air Lines, which means that its top award, two tickets around the world on the two lines, may not be requested after May 31.

The airlines are in the position of the Sorcerer's Apprentice.

They have invented something that may drown them. But although they reserve the right to end their programs at any time, they cannot risk angering business travelers - the major clients for full-fare tickets - whom the programs were designed to attract.

Last year airline officials were described by analysts of the industry as wishing that the federal government would step in, and by taxing frequent-flier awards as income, kill all the programs at once.

But the government did not act, and the airlines must live with their creatures.

To eliminate the possibility of a plane full of passengers traveling on awards, the airlines have instituted more stringent seating controls.

Deadlines for taking certain trips were made snugger. Mileage needed for some awards was increased. Blackout dates when awards cannot be used became more widespread.

The most extensive blackout dates in force are those for foreign airlines that participate in the United States lines' programs. As a sample, here are some blackout dates for travel to the Pacific.

Under Delta's program, travel to Asia on Delta cannot start from June 1 to Aug. 30, and if the destination is Seoul, South Korea, from June 1 to Oct. 31.

A Delta award on Japan Air Lines - Delta said this month that it had no plan to end this relationship - cannot be used in August, or for trans-Pacific travel from New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles westbound on Friday or Saturday, or trans-Pacific eastbound to those cities on Saturday or Sunday.

In addition, in 1989 there are 110 blackout days for travel between Japan and Asia.

American Airlines is operating two programs, one with restrictions, which requires fewer miles to win an award, and one with no blackout dates, which requires more miles.

Awards for Pacific travel on Singapore Airlines are not valid in June and August, for some flights in July nor from Dec. 10 to Jan. 10.

Judy Taylor, executive director of the American Association of Discount Travel Brokers, says that members of her organization, companies that buy frequent-travel coupons, complain that blackout dates are added all the time, often with little notice.

TWA sent a letter two weeks ago to participants who had 90,000 miles or more, saying that Japan Air Lines was leaving the TWA program.

Travel awards involving this line had to be requested by May 31, the letter said, and travel must be completed by Nov. 30, or six months after TWA issues the ticket, whichever comes latest.

This step ends TWA's top award: two trips around the world.

Other existing barriers prevent travel on the same dates blacked out on the Japan Air program with Delta.

One traveler who qualified for tickets around the world at the 190,000-mile level discovered it was difficult to get through all the hoops on the right dates.

Another airline limitation, "capacity control," meaning a ceiling on the number of seats on a given flight available to award-holders, is not so visible to participants.

Ms. Taylor, speaking for the coupon brokers, said that in January one company in the organization reported that it had been able to find only 14 seats to Australia in the coming seven months under one airline's award program.

Apparently as a result of the heyday of triple mileage, American seems to be looking at a bigger debt in awards than it expected.

An industry expert said that the line last year took a hard position that unclaimed awards should carry a big value on all airlines' books, although Mary O'Neill, a spokesman for American, denied this.

In any case, in January, the line denigrated the cash value of the awards. In a letter to the task force of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the airline said its frequent flier program was not a discount program.

"A discount program generally offers the individual a value savings which is certain, such as buy two for the price of one," the letter said.

"In a FFP, the most that is offered to a FFP member is the hope that they will in some way benefit from the program ... The FFP member must hope American will not have blocked usage of travel awards at the time that they would like to use the award. And, they must hope that American doesn't change the number of miles needed to earn an award."

United is the only airline so far that has yielded to angry participants after a court suit, but other airlines are raising mileage levels.

The Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan New York, in a study of frequent travel programs in late 1988, found that American had raised the mileage for two round-trip coach tickets to Europe to 120,000 miles from 90,000.

On July 1, this will go to 160,000. Piedmont in 1988 raised this award level to 140,000 from 80,000; in the joint USAir-Piedmont plan, new members must accumulate 200,000 miles for two Europe coach tickets, and this will be the requirement for all members after Nov. 7.