Not S0 Friendly Skies For Frequent Fliers

Remember the good old days when even your Aunt Hattie in Ft. Lauderdale could boast of earning a frequent-flier ticket to Poughkeepsie? Well, pack those memories away with other relics of the 1980s such as LBOs, yuppies, and Ronald Reagan. For many infrequent air travelers, the '90s have definitely crashed the party. And that giant sucking sound they hear is the value of tens of millions of frequent-flier miles slowly deflating out of their once-rich accounts.

Don't laugh. Beginning next year, most major carriers, including United, American, and Continental, will increase the mileage needed for a free domestic ticket by 25%, or 5,000 miles. Others, such as Delta and Northwest, are dramatically reducing the minimum miles they credit for flights--making it more difficult to reach award levels. And some are even reducing or restricting mileage earned on foreign partners. The bottom line: It will take more flights or spending with airline-affiliated credit cards or rental car companies for most fliers to earn that coveted freebie.

GOOD RIDDANCE. In fact, it's nearing the point where membership in frequent-flier programs--a symbol of the egalitarianism spawned by airline deregulation--seems hardly worth the bother for many travelers. That shouldn't sadden the airlines, who find it costly to maintain hundreds of thousands of accounts that will never grow enough to redeem even a first-class upgrade. "These programs will return to awarding free travel to the very frequent flier, while the rest of us will be left to fight over big discount airfares," says John Holland, publisher of The Business Flyer newsletter.

That's a dramatic turnabout from the up-up-and-away '80s, when fare wars, triple mileage promotions, and liberal award charts helped bring even grandma and the kids into the flier-plan fold. For example, a marathon weekend trip recounted in these pages in 1988--in which I spent $319 roundtrip to jet between Chicago-Atlanta-Birmingham-Atlanta-New Orleans-Houston-Dallas in a single day and then groggily flew the reverse itinerary on the next--earned me three free tickets, thanks to triple mileage and a lucrative segment promotion by the joint OnePass program of Continental Airlines and now-defunct Eastern Airlines.

That same trip today (if my older and somewhat wiser body could stand the strain) would cost a third more--and net less than a quarter of the mileage. And the pendulum isn't about to swing back. "This is essentially a price increase on something that hasn't had a price increase for years," says USAir Marketing Services Director Don Witte. To soften the blow "there are many more ways today to build mileage in your account," he notes.

Unfortunately, even relatively small hikes in required mileage can knock many award-seekers out of the game. The 5,000-mile increase for a domestic ticket at USAir means that a short-haul traveler would have to fly up to 10 extra flights to earn the same award next year. The added flight burden is even greater if you're working toward free travel to Europe, which at United Airlines is jumping 10,000 miles per ticket--the equivalent of about 20 extra segments between Chicago and Pittsburgh or $193 a week in additional United Visa card charges for an entire year. Even Delta Airlines' program, which is cutting mileage requirements for most members, will hike by 25% the mileage its heavy-flying Medallion members must redeem for domestic trips.

QUICK MILEAGE. Rather than trumpeting that the changes will make it more difficult for infrequent fliers to leave the ground gratis, the carriers have dwelled on the declines in required mileage for some first-class travel, fewer black-out dates, or improved services for premium fliers (generally those who earn at least 20,000 air miles annually). That's little solace if you're close to scoring a free flight under the current award schedule and now must scramble to top off your account before the increases kick in. Luckily, if you need only a few hundred miles, there are opportunities for a quick boost. American Airlines and Delta, for example, offer a minimum of 300 miles if you order at least $30 worth of flowers from FTD or the Flower Club, respectively, by phone. And Continental's 60th anniversary promotion, giving a 60% bonus for actual miles flown Aug. 10 to Oct. 9, will help many fliers over the top.

If you need 500 to 1,000 extra miles, check out the double-mileage hotel promotions listed on your airline's quarterly newsletter or those rental-car coupons that are stuck in your flier statement packet. During a Hawaiian vacation this summer, New York author Ernest Lieberman rented a car from Alamo Rent-A-Car simply because the company offered a bonus of 1,000 miles in American's flier plan--putting him just over the 20,000-mile threshold to claim a free domestic ticket. "I made a point of beating the increase," says Lieberman.

If you require considerably more miles, consider switching your long-distance service to a carrier allied with your flier program. Signing on with MCI Communications, for one, gives Northwest plan members up to 2,000 miles. And if you're really desperate--and willing to stomach its hefty $80 fee--applying for a Diner's Club International card can yield up to 10,000 flier miles that can be applied to any of 14 carriers. Whatever you do, don't dally, since it can take up to eight weeks for partner credits to show up in your account.

Have enough miles under the current award schedule but don't know yet when you would like to take a trip? On airlines such as American, you can redeem your miles for an award coupon. Then, you have up to a year to exchange the coupon for a ticket--and up to another year to use the ticket. And you usually can change the travel dates and city on the ticket for a $25 to $50 fee.

If you can't earn extra miles and don't want to redeem now, you can always sit on the miles you have and simply settle for a less pricey award destination later. If you currently have 80,000 miles in your United account, for example, you can request two free coach tickets to Europe. That award jumps to 100,000 miles after Feb. 1. So you could still claim two tickets to Hawaii or the Caribbean for 70,000 miles.

There are benefits to joining flier plans even when you know there's little chance you'll log enough miles to earn free travel. Continental recently sent its program members coupons good for 10% off weekend or weekly rentals at National Car Rental. And members of American Express' Membership Miles who link their USAir flier account to the card program through early November will receive a $99 companion ticket on USAir.

IN THE LOOP? But don't expect to keep receiving word of such goodies if you let your account lie dormant. Many carriers only include details of promotions in their periodic mileage activity statements. So if you don't accrue mileage for an extended period, you won't receive a statement or learn of these specials.

In fact, occasional fliers would do well to focus more closely on the industry's periodic discount fare sales, such as the fall travel promotion on sale through Aug. 31, or on everyday-low-fare carriers like Southwest Airlines. Those may bring the biggest payoff for modest travelers now that the airlines seem intent on making their frequent-flier programs live up to their names.

      Airline Change  Effective date
      UNITED  Ending liberal award schedule for "original program miles," Dec. 15,
              earned before July 1, 1989
              Raising mileage for free domestic and Hawaii travel by        Feb. 1,
              5,000; boosting mileage for coach seats to Europe by 25%
      USAIR   Raising mileage needed for free domestic ticket by 5,000      Jan. 1,
              miles, to 25,000
      TWA     Ending the earning of American AAdvantage miles for           Jan. 1,
              flights taken on TWA
      ALASKA  Raising mileage needed for free domestic ticket by 5,000      Feb. 1,
              miles, to 20,000
      CAN     Raising mileage needed for free domestic ticket by 5,000      Feb. 1,
              miles, to 25,000 miles
              Increasing mileage needed for Hawaii coach award by           Apr. 1,
              5,000 miles; reducing mileage for pair of nondomestic
              first-class tickets
      NENTAL  Boosting mileage needed for two domestic coach tickets        Feb. 1,
              by 43%, or 15,000 miles
      DELTA   Reducing mileage needed for free domestic ticket by           May 1,
              5,000 miles, to 25,000, but slashing minimum mileage
              earned per flight by 50%, to 500
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