- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2009

Do you consider yourself one of the most loyal customers of the airline you fly most frequently? Are you starting to feel like your loyalty is no longer being sufficiently rewarded? It may be time to rethink your strategy.

It’s no secret that, little by little, U.S. airlines have been reducing elite benefits in the last several months — decreasing the frequent-flier miles you can earn for flights but increasing the number of miles needed to redeem “awards,” while adding various new fees.

Although most of those “enhancements” — as the airlines call them to constant mocking by their customers — affect all loyalty-scheme members, top-tier elite passengers seem to be hit particularly hard. Those are the people most commonly designated as platinum members, who fly at least 75,000 or 100,000 miles a year, depending on the carrier, so they value their benefits more than the average traveler and keep flying because of them.

“Status is the crack cocaine for frequent flyers,” said Walt Frank of Wilmington, Del., who owns a chemical industry safety consulting company and travels constantly on business.

One of the most important elite benefits is the ability to redeem miles for “award” tickets in first and business class, but that has become more difficult recently because the mileage requirements for such tickets have jumped more than 40 percent. Coach-redemption levels have gone up less drastically, and a few have not been changed at all.

At the same time, carriers such as Continental Airlines Inc. and Northwest Airlines Inc. are reducing the elite bonuses their platinum members earn for paid flights by 20 percent, to levels consistent with their competitors.

However, it was Delta Air Lines Inc. that last month ventured into territory considered sacred by its most loyal customers. It caused furor when it announced the end of free changes to “award” tickets and redeposit of miles if those tickets go unused, the fee for which is typically $100.

The decision was made because many customers book “awards” but don’t use them, calling days or weeks after their scheduled trips to get their miles back and depriving others of those seats, said Delta spokeswoman Susan Elliott.

Customers, however, didn’t buy the company’s reasoning. After hundreds of complaints, Delta gave up some ground but didn’t go back all the way. It said it will waive the fee for two reservations a year, and there will be a $50 charge for each subsequent change. All other major carriers still waive the change fee for all “award” tickets booked using platinum members’ miles.

“From my perspective, it seems a bit bizarre for Delta to drive away its best customers during a growing recession,” Mr. Frank said. “Delta enticed us to give it our business in 2008, based upon the description of the benefits we would receive in 2009. Now, bit by bit, it’s trimming away at those promised benefits.”

While some airlines officially announce benefit reductions, others choose to make changes quietly or even in secret. That was the case with United Airlines Inc., which started blocking access to thousands of “award” seats made available by its partners in the global Star Alliance to save money. Although some frequent fliers became suspicious, United kept its practice secret from both its customers and reservations agents for a couple of years until this column exposed it in September.

(Clarification:) That policy doesn’t specifically target elite travelers, but they end up being the most affected because they try to redeem miles for more complex “awards” that include flights on partner carriers. Despite its public admission, the airline’s only acknowledgement of the policy on its Web site is a line reading, “Capacity-control restrictions do apply.”

“I find that many of my friends have been turned off by loyalty programs such as [United’s] Mileage Plus for reasons exactly like this,” said Brendan Vaughn, a frequent flier from Seattle who flew more than 160,000 miles on United last year.

In spite of the benefits devaluation, however, most elite travelers say the loyalty programs have not become completely worthless yet, and they are ready to give them another chance.

After flying on Delta for 35 years, Mr. Frank said he is “now giving every bit” of his business to Southwest Airlines Co. on routes the low-cost carrier serves. Still, he said he will wait for Delta’s expected announcement of more program changes at the end of the month before he decides if maintaining his platinum status is worth the effort.

“Flying is such a miserable experience, and elite status is about all there is to take the edge off the pain,” he said.

Click here to contact Nicholas Kralev.

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