Relax, your miles don’t expire? Yeah, right, American Airlines

Carol Weiss’s frequent flier miles “never expire.” Except that they just did. Can our advocacy team save them?

Question: I have an American Airlines AAdvantage account. I also had 14,000 miles earned with US Airways. When I signed up for the account, the airline said, “Relax. Your mileage doesn’t expire.”

Last year, American sent a “Countdown to a Single Loyalty Program” notification saying the US Airways and American programs would be merging. I sent an email to American asking them to confirm that those 14,000 US Airways miles would be added to my AAdvantage account. American sent an email saying my message had been received, and then I never heard from them again.

I’d like to recover my 14,000 US Airways miles, which I value at $500. — Carol Weiss, Cambridge, Mass.

Question: I have some bad news: Your missing miles are not worth $500. Award points are typically valued at around 1 cent each, which makes your loss worth $140 — and that’s being extremely generous.

Of course, the situation is more absurd than that. US Airways no longer exists, so any promises it made when you signed up for the program are pretty much null and void. But even if they weren’t, the original program agreement allows an airline to change the rules at any time, for any reason, without even notifying you.

Oh, and one more thing: The miles technically never belonged to you. They are the property of the airline, even though you earned them fair and square.

This is the reason our advocacy team usually stays far, far away from mileage cases. They are ridiculous and largely unwinnable.

Related story:   Are bereavement fares reserved for frequent fliers only?

You could have appealed your case to someone higher up at American Airlines. I list the names, email addresses and phone numbers for the executives on this site. But something tells me it would have generated another meaningless form response.

Our advocacy team reviewed your paper trail with American and also reached out to the airline on your behalf. It seems your US Airways miles never transferred to your new account — not during the latest merger, but way back US Airways merged with America West.

As a gesture of goodwill, American issued a credit of 2,500 miles to bring your current AAdvantage balance to over 15,000.

As you know, the rules governing loyalty programs are written to favor the airline, not the consumer. American could have given you nothing, and it would have been well within its rights. My advice would be to use these miles quickly.

Then cut up your card, and don’t look back.

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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 Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Rebecca

    “This is the reason our advocacy team usually stays far, far away from mileage cases. They are ridiculous and largely unwinnable.”

    And then…..

    “Our advocacy team reviewed your paper trail with American and also reached out to the airline on your behalf.”

    Forgive my being dense, but this is confusing. The OP had airline miles from airlines that don’t exist anymore. One would think there are surely more deserving cases. These miles were obviously really, really old. Have to pick your battles, life is too short. And I say that about the OP and the advocates that helped the OP.

  • MarkKelling

    I agree with you. I don’t really see the point of this article, other than being another poke at the dead horse of how bad and unfair and how much the frequent flyer programs cheat everyone of their hard earned miles after years of loyalty. Sorry, but if you only had 14,000 miles you may have been a loyal customer but are not a frequent flyer in any airline’s view (but then I don’t know the history of the OP, maybe at one point they were flying a million miles yearly and due to job changes or retirement they simply don’t fly that much anymore). Most sign up bonuses give you 30,000 or more miles now for doing nothing.

  • sirwired

    “US Airways no longer exists, so any promises it made when you signed up for the program are pretty much null and void.”

    Untrue on two counts.

    1) US Airways purchased AA and then assumed their name. It’s the original AA that no longer exists. (Actually, the original US Airways doesn’t exist any more either, America West purchased them and assumed their name, and the new company then bought AA.)
    2) Since AA never declared bankruptcy, the acquirer is responsible for all contractual obligations of the acquired company.

    In this case, it sounds like the miles did not, in fact, expire at all, they were just lost in a paperwork shuffle many years ago, so I’m not sure why the headline talks about expiration.

    But yeah, a cent a piece is much closer to their true value (it’s the wholesale price, internally they are valued by the airline at some amount less) and kudos for pointing that out.

  • Jeff W.

    Rebecca and Mark are correct. Either take mileage cases or don’t. We know Elliott has a intense hatred for these programs, so why take on these cases?

    But the real reason AA reinstated the miles? Yes, it was a mistake on their part. So there is some goodwill and good press. But 15K miles alone is not enough to redeem for a flight. At best, maybe a one-way ticket. But she is going to have to spend a bunch more money to earn enough miles to use them for a typical ticket. Or for an upgrade. Or she can spend them on a few magazine subscriptions, I guess.

    I suspect these miles will be added and then expire in 18 months for lack of activity.

  • greg watson

    I haven’t taken a flight ( on Alaska Air ) for over 2 years, but my mileage plan miles (from Alaska Air MC),have increased with my everyday purchases. We will be going to London UK in May from Vancouver BC at a net cost of about $400 total (with miles) for my wife & I (non-stop). There are ‘air miles’, ‘aeroplan miles’ & no doubt plenty of other ‘loyalty programs’ out there. Mine works for me, but if yours don’t work for you, maybe get a ‘cash back ‘ card or something like it.

  • Pedro Thomson

    US Airways did not buy AA, they merged per Doug Parker AA CEO. AA did file chapter 11 in 2011.

  • jsn55

    Loyalty programs are not evil. Many of us derive great value for our loyalty.

    But loyalty programs do require supervision from the member. Back in the good ol’ days, airlines and hotels sent out paper statements so the member could track points and miles. There was plenty of notice when the switch-over was made to post accounts online and allow members to access them whenever they pleased, a great convenience.

    If you have points and miles in loyalty programs, check them occasionally, and read the rules so you don’t miss out on the benefits of your loyalty.

  • sirwired

    Oops, yes, AA did declare BK. Don’t know how I had forgotten that. But while US may have pitched it as a merger, it was definitely a purchase, as the US team was clearly calling the shots.

  • taxed2themax

    I agree..I think for those who can and will devote the time necessary to stay atop the program, rules, redemption issues etc.. programs like this CAN have some real value… but again, I think that will take some effort on the members part.

    Rightly or wrongly, programs have become more complex with more ways to earn and more ways to redeem — so you must take a hard look at your individual spending patterns and match that with your expected redemption preferences and see what program – if any – makes sense for you.

    Some may be better served by a non-affiliated cash-back type card, but others may be better served by a traditional single-carrier FFP program…

    Could programs be easier to navigate? Sure, I think that could be said for most things in life.. but.. I think if one is willing to put in a nominal amount of time (nominal as I see it) into understanding the program rules, pros and cons, and make a realistic assessment against their own spending/redemption patterns, I think a fair number of people could be well served by being members.

    I think blinding following any program, be that airline, store or otherwise, is a bad idea.. but that does not, for me, make them bad. I think it’s all based on how it’s understood and used by the participant.

  • PsyGuy

    I’ve always had mixed feelings about airline reward programs. On one side of the coin, I belong to a lot of reward programs from Daiso (a Japanese general store, like Walmart) too Starbucks, and include gas stations in the US, and finally several chain bars (both in the US and Japan). I haven’t figured out how to redeem the Daiso points, or even if there are any, I do know I can use the card and access special discounts. Starbucks everyone knows how it works, buy a certain amount of beverages, whatever and you get a free one at a certain point. Gas stations give me a $.10 reduction in gas every 250 points, the bars give me reward certificates good for a free drink (US) or give me a discount (10%) on my tab in Japan. Those loyalty programs didn’t cost me anything, except for providing the company marketing data, and I’m getting something of value out of them. Would i buy less Starbucks without having a card (with funds loaded on it), probably. Would I drink less, probably. Would those savings be worth more than the value of the loyalty programs, sure.

    I belong to a lot of major airline loyalty programs both domestic and international. My international accounts have a few thousand points on them, because I don’t fly them on qualifying routes. Usually when I’m flying those airlines, I’m flying the regional brand, that has very short routes that don’t qualify for points or I am buying their lowest cost ticket that doesn’t qualify for points or status. So I have a few points on them.
    The bulk of my air travel is on a legacy carrier (American), because I fly them for work for both international and domestic travel, but I don’t earn any point or miles on those routes.
    Personally on domestic routes I fly Jet Blue when I can or SouthWest when I have to. Why, well I like being treated like a business class customer, even though i don’t have any type of status, because those airlines treat all of their passengers better than legacy carriers treat me. Don’t get me wrong I feel like a number on all of them, but I feel like a better number with the smaller regional carriers like JB or SW, because even though I fly a lot for my company on American, and know the stews, the gate and counter agents personally, it’s that relationship I have with those people and not any kind of status or value I bring to American, and I’m reminded of that anytime I interact with someone new.

    What this means for me in regard to airline loyalty programs is this: If you can obtain points on money you would otherwise spend, or someone else spends on behalf of you, and then you can redeem those points at very low or no cost regularly without sacrificing some other earning opportunity (miles vs. cash back on a bank card for example), than I have a hard time having an issue with airline loyalty programs.
    The problem I have with airline loyalty programs is when the reward program influences buying. I will not book a more expensive flight to earn points with an airline. A $50 difference in price is not going to get me 50,000 points (based on what a point is worth) with an airline’s loyalty program, I’d rather save the $50 in real money instead of some script ledger balance total with an airline. What I save on most flights if I really wanted to can buy me actual amenities like a lounge pass, or an actual class upgrade.

    Those are really my two biggest life hacks in travel. 1) If I’m going to have a long layover or a number of layovers on a multi city ticket. A lounge pass is a lot cheaper than buying drinks at an airport bar and getting a meal or two in an airport restaurant. The WiFi is also better as is the space. 2) When I’m traveling with baggage and as a couple a last minute upgrade to first class on the first segment of travel can be a very cheap way of getting a 3 bag luggage allowance and all the boarding group privileges. I will usually pay for the first class upgrade for my fiance, and she brings two bags plus one for me. She gets lounge access at the departing airport and gets to bring me in as a guest. She gets group 1 boarding on the departing and all connecting flights.

  • 42NYC

    I get that this is frustrating but the reality is – if these miles date back to the America west Days and she hasn’t added to her balance since then, is she really someone American Airlines cares about as a customer of someone who really has “loyalty”.

    Again I get it’s frustrating but the reality is airlines do not care about this kind of customer.

  • michael anthony

    The various miles programs were an excellent value back in the day, like in the early 90s. The rules were simple and the miles banked at a predictable pace. Back then, I earned and used 4 r/t per year, first class, to Hawaii. Now, you can barely eek out one, due to cutbacks in seats available, higher redemption rates, and rules that clearly benefit the carriers. Like doing away with the 500 mile minimum earned per flight.

    Sure, they can be a good value, if you fly constantly. Even if you do, you’ll be lucky to score those coveted first class round-trips to the best cities in the world. Just 20 years ago, it was a cakewalk.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Some are easy. Delta gives me a minimum of 9pct back on every dollar I spend with them, usable on any Delta flight worldwide, at any time.

  • The Original Joe S

    POO on most US flagged airlines! I like the Asian lines – they are nice.

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