Frequent sighers


Frequent fliers are hitting turbulence before they even take off. Airline loyalty programs are in turmoil, and a new survey, conducted for U.S. News by frequent-flier consultants Brierley & Partners, shows that loyal customers are feeling the pinch.

Nearly half of the 2,136 frequent travelers polled said it’s recently become more difficult to swap miles for a ticket. About a quarter said it’s much more difficult or virtually impossible to get a free flight to choice spots like Hawaii or Europe. And 1 in 4 admitted to cashing in miles sooner, nervous about the state of the airline industry. “The value of a mile isn’t what it used to be,” says Bill Russo, who managed the survey.

The most common program changes: Raising the required number of miles for an award ticket or an upgrade to business class, and adding fees for a last-minute ticket obtained using miles. Northwest won’t allow travelers without elite status (earned by extremely frequent flying) to use points for an upgrade on a domestic flight.

United upped the cost of an upgrade from 5,000 miles to 8,000 miles on a full-fare coach-class ticket. And a last-minute award ticket for domestic travel on American will cost 50,000 miles–up 10,000 miles–starting in May. Other alterations are more drastic. Delta’s overhaul of SkyMiles makes it tougher to reach elite status if you book cheap tickets.

Switcheroo. As a result, turnover is high. The survey showed that about 30 percent of frequent fliers have switched programs in the past year. And they may find a better deal. David Kingsley, an attorney in Plantation, Fla., who travels regularly to Europe, shifted his loyalties from Continental Airlines to British Airways after his former carrier nixed some business-class perks. “I only fly Continental when I have to now,” he says.

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People who swap programs won’t necessarily find a better deal–unless the airline they abandoned ends up grounded by bankruptcy, says Tim Winship, who edits the Web site FrequentFlier .com. Still, there are differences. U.S. News asked five experts to grade the seven major frequent flier programs. American’s AAdvantage and Southwest’s Rapid Rewards tied for the top spot, while Delta’s SkyMiles, which is being sued by frequent fliers for slashing benefits too deeply, ranked lowest among major airlines. No program scored an A–and none flunked.

Try two. In a competitive airline market–say, Chicago or New York–it may be better to play the field, according to Brierley’s Russo. “If you can qualify as a gold level with one airline early in the year, then qualify for a second program, you’re better off,” he says. Not only will you spread the risk, but you’ll have more of a choice in schedules.

For others, the mileage game is over. Jerry van Bemmel, a telecommunications technician in Marietta, Ga., is so frustrated with dwindling benefits that he cashed in his miles for subscriptions to magazines, which, he says, “I read while waiting for my delayed flights.”

Tom Flessner has flown more than a million miles on United. Since 2001, he he hasn’t been traveling as much and his elite status has slipped away. “I felt devastated, standing in line like a second-class citizen with the other coach passengers,” recalls the executive vice president of an aluminum-casting company in Hanford, Calif. “Then I realized I was actually better off as a commoner, because I wasn’t up there begging for an upgrade with the other frequent fliers. I was content.”


Price, not perks, now determines which airline he flies. “I feel pretty darn proud to have kicked the mileage habit,” he says.

Frequent fliers are hitting turbulence before they even take off. Airline loyalty programs are in turmoil, and a new survey, conducted for U.S. News by frequent-flier consultants Brierley & Partners, shows that loyal customers are feeling the pinch.

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Nearly half of the 2,136 frequent travelers polled said it’s recently become more difficult to swap miles for a ticket. About a quarter said it’s much more difficult or virtually impossible to get a free flight to choice spots like Hawaii or Europe. And 1 in 4 admitted to cashing in miles sooner, nervous about the state of the airline industry. “The value of a mile isn’t what it used to be,” says Bill Russo, who managed the survey.

The most common program changes: Raising the required number of miles for an award ticket or an upgrade to business class, and adding fees for a last-minute ticket obtained using miles. Northwest won’t allow travelers without elite status (earned by extremely frequent flying) to use points for an upgrade on a domestic flight.

United upped the cost of an upgrade from 5,000 miles to 8,000 miles on a full-fare coach-class ticket. And a last-minute award ticket for domestic travel on American will cost 50,000 miles–up 10,000 miles–starting in May. Other alterations are more drastic. Delta’s overhaul of SkyMiles makes it tougher to reach elite status if you book cheap tickets.

Switcheroo. As a result, turnover is high. The survey showed that about 30 percent of frequent fliers have switched programs in the past year. And they may find a better deal. David Kingsley, an attorney in Plantation, Fla., who travels regularly to Europe, shifted his loyalties from Continental Airlines to British Airways after his former carrier nixed some business-class perks. “I only fly Continental when I have to now,” he says.

People who swap programs won’t necessarily find a better deal–unless the airline they abandoned ends up grounded by bankruptcy, says Tim Winship, who edits the Web site FrequentFlier .com. Still, there are differences. U.S. News asked five experts to grade the seven major frequent flier programs. American’s AAdvantage and Southwest’s Rapid Rewards tied for the top spot, while Delta’s SkyMiles, which is being sued by frequent fliers for slashing benefits too deeply, ranked lowest among major airlines. No program scored an A–and none flunked.

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Try two. In a competitive airline market–say, Chicago or New York–it may be better to play the field, according to Brierley’s Russo. “If you can qualify as a gold level with one airline early in the year, then qualify for a second program, you’re better off,” he says. Not only will you spread the risk, but you’ll have more of a choice in schedules.

For others, the mileage game is over. Jerry van Bemmel, a telecommunications technician in Marietta, Ga., is so frustrated with dwindling benefits that he cashed in his miles for subscriptions to magazines, which, he says, “I read while waiting for my delayed flights.”

Tom Flessner has flown more than a million miles on United. Since 2001, he he hasn’t been traveling as much and his elite status has slipped away. “I felt devastated, standing in line like a second-class citizen with the other coach passengers,” recalls the executive vice president of an aluminum-casting company in Hanford, Calif. “Then I realized I was actually better off as a commoner, because I wasn’t up there begging for an upgrade with the other frequent fliers. I was content.”

Price, not perks, now determines which airline he flies. “I feel pretty darn proud to have kicked the mileage habit,” he says.


Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

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