Airline Frequent Flier Rules Questioned

I once tangled with a Delta Air Lines representative about a fee on my award ticket and he told me that I was getting the ticket “practically for free.”

Wrong. I was getting a ticket paid for with a currency called frequent flier miles. And I earned them.

Frequent flier miles are not gifts from the airlines, they are assets. Now Sen. Chuck Schumer wants to review consumer complaints about how airlines handle their mileage programs.

Airlines, desperate for a buck wherever they can turn one up, have been shortening expiration periods on frequent flier accounts and passengers have been losing millions of miles. It doesn’t help that each airline sets its own rules and expiration periods and that they generally don’t notify customers that miles are about to expire.

That lack of notification is galling. It feels sneaky. If an airline can tell you that your miles have expired after the fact — and charge you a fee to reinstate them — surely it can notify you before the fact.

Customers are also annoyed that airlines have been raising fees on frequent flier tickets, cutting availability of award ticket seats and raising the number of miles required for certain flights. I’m annoyed by that, too. The airlines are effectively devaluing the currency of frequent flier miles.

But I’d argue that the airlines have the right to devalue the currency. They’re the issuing authorities, and like a government that issues paper money, they can determine its value. Customers may not like it, and airlines have to consider how customers will react, but I’d argue that’s between the airline and its customers. It’s not something that ought to be regulated.

Confiscating frequent flier miles is another matter, however. The government can devalue the dollar, but it can’t come and take all your dollars simply for lapse of time.

There’s no need for 1,000 pages of regulations here. Simply require airlines  to notify customers 30 days before miles are going to expire, giving them an opportunity to use the miles or earn more to keep the account alive by buying a ticket or using a credit card.

That’s the way banks have to handle “abandoned” bank accounts, and it’s fair enough.

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