Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Today's Icarus: The Frequent Flier

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Today's Icarus: The Frequent Flier

Article excerpt

Want a free plane ticket?

Pack yourself into a winged aluminum sardine can for 25,000 miles first.

That was the theory behind frequent-flier programs.

But recently airlines have greatly expanded the ways travelers can earn frequent-flier miles. At the same time, they've clamped down on people's ability to spend them, by increasing the miles needed to earn a ticket, imposing expiration dates on miles, and limiting free seats on popular flights.

All the new rules have created a mass of confusion for frequent fliers.

To figure out the best frequent-flier programs, "you have to become a scientist, a CPA, or a brain surgeon," says Tom Parsons, president of Best Fares Online, who has amassed more than 3.5 million frequent-flier miles.

Like Mr. Parsons, 33 million Americans count themselves frequent fliers, and most join several mileage programs.

But are they worth it?

That depends on how you accumulate the miles and how you spend them.

"Often when you look back at all the tickets you've paid full price for to get that free ticket, it can be astonishing," says James Ashurst, spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents.

Frequent-flier programs were originally developed to promote customer loyalty.

But they've developed into something quite different: another big revenue stream for the airlines, and a free-for-all among passengers vying for free seats.

One of the biggest problems is that airlines don't offer enough free seats to popular destinations to accommodate all the customers earning miles, says Mr. Parsons.

Mr. Ashurst agrees. He calls it "disingenuous for airlines to promote programs, when there aren't enough seats to go around."

On average, airlines give away 8 percent of their seats to frequent fliers.

But that average doesn't tell much. They could be 1 percent of seats between Los Angeles and Honolulu at Christmas and 25 percent from Dallas to Pittsburgh in February, Parsons says.

So if you're going to Hawaii for Christmas, you may have to call for reservations at 12:01 a.m. December 26th the year before. But even that may not work.

"Some people call a year in advance and {still} can't get seats," Parsons says. Tickets can't be reserved more than a year ahead.

Airlines don't have to say how many seats they set aside, and Parsons believes Congress should make them. Then passengers could choose the frequent-flier program that reserves the most seats on the route they fly most often.

When former Transportation Secretary Federico Pena promised an investigation into frequent-flier programs, "every airline out there, other than Southwest, was knocking at the knees," Parsons says.

"If there's anything that's becoming a travel scam, it's frequent- flier miles," he says.

The biggest problem with frequent-flier programs is how often airlines change the rules. …

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