Burned by her loyalty program, but can I put out this fire?

Catherine Wilbur says she was duped by Frontier Airlines, specifically its EarlyReturns loyalty program, which promises you can earn an award flight “for as little as 20,000 miles,” and says the fastest way to get there is through its $69-a-year affinity card.

Ah, if Wilbur only read this site, she’d know all about the evils of affinity cards and loyalty programs.

[Insert boilerplate rant against bait-and-switch loyalty programs and their apologists here.]

There, now that we got that out of the way, on with the story. And on to an even bigger question: What’s the best way to help people like Wilbur?

Wilbur obediently applied for the Frontier MasterCard and received her 40,000-mile bonus — enough for two roundtrip tickets, she thought. She began making plans to fly from Trenton, N.J., to Orlando for a long overdue vacation.

“Imagine my shock when I called to book three round-trip flights and the EarlyReturns redemption center would not give me the two round trips for my 40,000 miles,” she says.

Oh, I know. I can hear those of you who study loyalty programs as it they’re Holy Scripture saying, “She should have read the fine print! She should have subscribed to a reliable points blog! Then she would have known.”

But stay with me, fellow skeptics.

Frontier had also promised her no blackout dates, so when she found out that there were no award seats for March 4, the date she had to fly, she was understandably upset. How could Frontier say “no blackouts” but then tell her she couldn’t fly on a certain date.

I know, I know. Even I understand it doesn’t work like that.

Wilbur paid $600 for the tickets instead of redeeming her miles. “What I want is restitution for the two round-trip fares to Orlando from Trenton and back,” she says. “I want Frontier to refund the cost of these two round-trip flights and take my 40,000 rewards points.”

In other words, take back your card and your miles — you lied to me.

I can already anticipate the comments. Wilbur didn’t read the terms carefully, didn’t take the time to understand how the system works. Award seats are based on availability, and if there are none available, the airline can’t just take two seats out of inventory and give them to her.

That’s interesting, but it’s beside the point. I wonder how misunderstandings like this can happen. Are they all the customer’s fault? Many of you would say “yes.” You’ll tell me you’ve used your affinity cards and points for “free” flights to Hawaii. You’ll tell me that passengers like Wilbur should stay away from collecting miles and leave it to the pros, because there’s “more for us” then.

Sigh.

I don’t think these misunderstandings are entirely the customer’s fault. I think that, when it comes to loyalty programs, airlines often make lofty promises littered with weasel words — promises they have no intention of keeping. Then, when customers like Wilbur search their contract to try to find what they thought they understood, they find themselves grasping for straws. That shouldn’t be allowed.

Loyalty programs should reward good customers like Wilbur. They should say what they do and do what they say. They should not lead to confused customers, and if they do, it’s the company’s fault for not making it clearer. You shouldn’t have to be a mileage pro to understand how these things work.

So how to help her? I don’t think I can advocate for a refund of her 40,000 points. Not from an airline like Frontier. But maybe a little careful and thoughtful regulation could avoid future misunderstandings and less customer frustration. After all, Wilbur pays her taxes — shouldn’t the government she funds also protect her from a shady loyalty program?

Should the federal government regulate loyalty programs?

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