August 21, 2005
DON'T throw away frequent-flier newsletters. Do sign up for e-mail updates.
That's the best advice I can give to collectors of airline miles this year.
The reason? Several airlines, squeezed between low fares and high fuel costs, are tinkering with programs that award free seats and upgrades. Changes may come with little or no notice.
If you think it's getting harder to book free seats, you're probably right. (More on that later.)
Not all these changes are bad for fliers. Here are three this summer that I'd rate, in order, mixed, bad and good:
Miles reprieve on Southwest: This pioneer of cheap flying, which has grown to carry more passengers than any U.S. airline, has begun giving its Rapid Rewards members two years instead of one to use their program credits. (Each round trip earns two credits, and it takes 16 for a free trip.)
"With the 24 months' earning window, we believe we're going to have more people earning award travel," said Linda Rutherford, Southwest spokeswoman. "We're looking at this as a growth opportunity for the program."
Getting two years to gather enough credits for a free flight is an improvement, although still shy of the three years many other carriers allow.
"It probably doubles the number of people on that program who can earn a free ticket," said Randy Petersen, editor and publisher of InsideFlyer magazine. Which is a good thing — especially because Southwest in April phased out bonus credits for online bookings. Those bonuses, as recently as last year, allowed travelers to earn free trips in half the time.
The longer miles-expiration window, effective Aug. 10, was paired with another announcement: Starting Feb. 10, Southwest will eliminate blackout dates for award travel, but, for the first time, free tickets will be "subject to seat restrictions."
That change could make it tougher to book a free ticket. Here's why:
This year, Southwest bars award travel on 16 holiday dates. On the remaining 349 days, if there's room on the plane and you have enough credits, the airline says, you can get a free seat.
But under the new policy, the airline will be free to limit the number of award seats 365 days a year. Southwest won't say how many seats that will be. But you can probably expect those seats to be scarcer on weekends and other high-demand times.
"They may not be able to go on the 5 p.m. flight on Friday," Rutherford said of free-seat seekers. "But we believe that with some flexibility, they will be able to get to their intended destination."
"No go" from Delta: This troubled airline, its stock recently battered, stopped accepting award requests from its SkyMiles members for seats on Air France and KLM, two of its SkyTeam alliance partners.
In a notice issued in May, Delta said the move, which applies to flights through Aug. 31, was "a result of high award travel requests during the peak summer travel season."
InsideFlyer's Petersen called it "the worst move of the year."
"If they can do it, might we see this from other alliances?" he asked. "It's just not fair."
Tim Winship, editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com, wrote in his online newsletter in June: "That simply, and unacceptably, breaks faith with SkyMiles members and gives the lie to the program's promise to them."
Delta spokesman Anthony Black declined to respond to the criticism.
In its SkyMiles Membership Guide & Program Rules posted on http://www.delta.com , the airline says: "When you are ready, you can redeem your miles for Award Travel within the United States or around the world on Delta or any of the SkyTeam member airlines." But it also says awards are subject to "capacity controls" and blackout dates and that Delta can change the rules at any time without notice.
Many carriers' policies contain similar caveats.
"There are no federal regulations specifically governing frequent-flier programs, either through DOT or any other federal agency," said Bill Mosley, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation. "There is a statutory prohibition against airlines engaging in unfair or deceptive practices, and this includes frequent-flier programs."
What's unfair, presumably, is open to interpretation.
Fewer miles to fly fewer miles: This is actually good news.
American and United last month announced plans to lower the required minimums for a free domestic ticket in coach from 25,000 to 15,000 miles for flights shorter than 750 miles each way. American's offer is good for travel Sept. 1 to Feb. 28; United's, in effect since July 15, applies through Dec. 31.
Whether you can redeem your miles is another question.
Determined to maximize revenue, U.S. airlines are flying fuller than ever and giving up fewer free seats, said Michael Allen, chief operating officer of Back Aviation Solutions, an aviation consulting firm in New Haven, Conn.
Taken as a whole, 6.2% of seats flown domestically in the first quarter this year by U.S. airlines were on frequent-flier tickets, down from 6.4% in 2004 and 7.0% in 2003 for the same period, Allen said.
Meanwhile, with firms as varied as hotels and home-equity lenders offering award miles, the demand for free seats is growing by 10% or more per year, some experts say.
Petersen's tips for booking an award ticket:
Shoot for lower-traffic days, typically Tuesdays through Thursdays.
If the airline's website rejects your multi-leg itinerary, phone to find out whether just one segment is filled. Ask how to reroute it, then book the whole trip online. (Airlines may charge service fees to book on the phone but not just to talk, Petersen said.)
If you can't find a seat 10 or 11 months ahead, check back later. Airlines may wait until six months out to load up their free inventory.
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