How To Stay Aloft If Your Airline Goes Under

As a consulting partner at a Big Six accounting firm in Miami, Frank Recio has jetted to meetings in Australia and Britain within the space of a month. Such globe-trotting has earned him "zillions of miles" in frequent-flier accounts. But when Recio tried to book an award flight to watch his son's rowing team in Augusta, Ga., he discovered that his 250,000 Eastern Air Lines miles wouldn't take him far. "Continental the sister carrier of now-grounded Eastern said they didn't serve the city," he says. Despite his megamiles, Recio was forced to buy a ticket on USAir

As Recio learned, an airline's woes can spell bad news for frequent travelers who have cast their lot with it. When Braniff failed, it left thousands of flier-program members with worthless mileage. And even though Eastern fliers living in, say, Richmond, Va., or Birmingham, Ala., can cash in their miles on Continental Airlines, that carrier doesn't serve their hometowns. GONE TOMORROW? Savvy travelers are now judging frequent-flier deals not only on their award schedules or upgrade policies but also on the airline's staying power. "What good does it do me to try to win a really cheap award on TWA if they might not be flying when I want to use it?" asks Paul Sturm, a Hawaii resident who vows that a recent "triple mileage" Honolulu-to-Chicago flight that he took will be his laston TWA.

To be sure, the cyclical airline business could rebound, allowing bankrupt carriers such as Continental and Midway Airlines to revive. And some troubled carriers are making provisions for frequent-flier customers, regardless of what happens. As part of the recent sale of the London routes of Pan American World Airways to United Airlines, the two carriers teamed up in a reciprocal awards program (table). International travelers on Pan Am can credit miles to United's plan, while any United flight qualifies for Pan Am miles. What's more, members of both programs can redeem awards on either carrier. American Airlines, whose purchase of Trans World Airlines' London routes is pending, plans a similar tie-in, slated for completion by summer. And other airlines have alliances, although most international carriers charge passengers a mileage premium to fly with them.

Seasoned fliers are still devising protection strategies of their own. That's because, once a carrier is grounded for good, its free tickets are usually worthless. In other words, it's use them or lose them. Even United probably won't honor a Pan Am freebie if the ailing airline doesn't make it. Disgusted Eastern frequent fliers learned their lesson in January, when American and United refused to accept their award tickets. Eastern's paying customers, however, were able to fly on other carriers at no extra charge.

One thing you can do if you have a mileage balance on a shaky carrier is cash in quickly as many miles as you can. Sure, you may have been saving up to earn a dream trip to the Orient. But you're better off using the miles on shorter flights than taking the risk of getting stuck with worthless awards later on. "When worried clients ask us what they can do, we tell them there's not a lot of recourse except a quick vacation," says Dexter Koehl of Carlson Travel Network in Minneapolis. "It's kind of the classic 'buyer beware.' " FIGURING ANGLES. If you can't manage to take a free trip anytime soon, you have the option of reserving a ticket on one of the international airlines in your flier program. That way, the ticket will still be good even if the domestic carrier goes under.

The mileage premium you'll pay to shift to an international carrier varies widely, depending upon the airline, the flight, and whether you want to travel first class or coach. And in some cases where two airlines don't fly to the same places, it's almost impossible to calculate. But there are some apples-to-apples comparisons. For example, you'll need 45,000 more Continental miles to get a free first-class ticket from New York to Paris on Air France than on Continental itself. But if you fly coach, you'll have to redeem only 15,000 more miles.

Pan Am fliers don't have to pay a premium to take award travel on United's new flights to London if they travel any time from now to June 13 and from Sept. 10 to Dec. 15. But during the peak summer months, they will have to cough up 10,000 more miles--a 33% increase--in coach if they fly midweek. Different requirements apply for travel on weekends and certain blackout dates.

It would be wise to redeem your miles for a ticket on the foreign airline soon, even if you don't plan to travel for many months, to avoid possible rule changes or a rush by other spooked fliers later. You can reserve a free ticket up to 12 months in advance of the flight.

Of course, even with careful planning, complications may arise. London currency trader Jackie Dyer was holding a Pan Am round-trip award ticket to Boston when United bought the London routes. Upon calling Pan Am, Dyer was told she had been shifted to two United flights. But the difference in the flight schedules caused her to lose two extra days of work. "When this happens, you realize that as a frequent flier you have no rights at all," Dyer says. Still, at least she got to use her miles. If airline consolidation continues, other frequent fliers may not be so lucky.

      If you're nervous that your airline may be grounded, consider exchanging your
      frequent-flier miles for tickets on a stronger partner. You'll probably have
      to ante up more miles, but it may be worth it for the peace of mind. Here are
      carriers that have tied in to some major award programs:
        Flier program           Partner airlines
      CONTINENTAL           Aer Lingus, Air France, Alitalia, Cayman,
                            Iberia, KLM, Lufthansa, Sabena, SAS
      MIDWAY                ALM , Cayman, Sabena
      PAN AM                United
      TWA                   Air India, Air New Zealand, Alaska, American,*
      USAIR                 Air France, British, Finnair, Lufthansa, Northwest,
                            Philippine, Swissair
      *Negotiations pending  DATA: BW
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