Frequent Barriers to Frequent Fliers
  By Keith L. Alexander
Wednesday, May 23, 2001 - It's the biggest complaint among members of airline frequent-flier programs: how difficult it is to redeem points for free travel.

Just ask criminal-justice consultant David Beatty of Ashburn. Airlines, Beatty says, "always have blackout dates and other limitations which often make using them very impractical."

So which airlines are the most and least accommodating? Airlines' 10-K filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission give a strong clue.

American Airlines last year awarded 2.8 million round trips, which represented 9.2 percent of total passengers miles flown on the airline, putting it at the top.

Continental, the nation's fifth-largest carrier, was second with 7.6 percent, or 1.4 million trips. United, which was the nation's largest airline last year, came in third at 7.2 percent.

That was a big deal for United, where 17 percent fewer passengers traveled on free tickets than in 1999. United says most of that decline was due to the cancellation of 20,000 flights last summer as a result of its dispute with its pilots' union.

Frequent-flier expert Randy Petersen, publisher of Inside Flyer magazine, says airlines that have less than 7.5 percent of its travelers flying on redeemed miles have excessively stringent rules.

America West and Southwest had the lowest percentage of miles flown with awards -- 2.6 percent and 4.9 percent, respectively. America West spokeswoman Janice Monahan says many of the airline's travelers save their miles for international trips on its partners including British Airways, Northwest and Trans World Airlines. Debora Benton, head of Southwest's frequent-flier program, says Southwest's redemptions were low because its travelers obtain points only by flying -- not with purchases on credit cards, long-distance phone calls or other non-traveling means that have become part of the airlines' marketing alliances.

The figures also don't reflect upgrades, which for many frequent fliers are one of the most popular reasons to redeem miles. For example, Delta Air Lines had 7 percent of its miles flown with frequent-flier points last year and gave away 2.6 million trips. But with mileage points redeemed for upgrades, membership into its Crown Room airport club and other perks, the total number of rewards increased to 3.2 million.

While the 10-K figures give insight into what percentage of an airline's travelers are flying on awards, they don't answer the main questions that travelers such as Beatty have. The biggest one is how many seats -- if any at all -- are available for free travel on each flight, especially to popular destinations such as Hawaii, Miami or Paris. Airlines aren't required to reveal that number.

"You have to sit down with a calender and plan out months in advance hoping there are seats out there," Beatty said.

2001 The Washington Post Company



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