POINT BLANK

Business Traveler (USA) - - SPECIAL REPORT -

Now you see‘em; now you don’t. That could de­scribe what is fast be­com­ing a dis­ap­pear­ing act with air­line mileage awards. Gone are the days when a mile flown was a point earned and a priv­i­lege gained. Those points would rack up quickly into an econ­omy seat – one that you could ac­tu­ally re­serve – on a cross-coun­try flight on one of Amer­ica’s legacy car­ri­ers, and bring loy­alty bumps that would earn fliers love from the air­lines.

To­day that seat is a hard-earned af­fair of call­ing, guess­ing, hop­ing, los­ing, pos­si­bly pur­chas­ing and then more fly­ing as air­lines merge, perks van­ish and pro­grams morph into other pro­grams and mileage charts fly out the win­dow. Loy­alty is less a con­cern for air­lines as com­pe­ti­tion nar­rows and peo­ple, whether for busi­ness or plea­sure, are fly­ing more than ever. The ques­tion then be­comes not how to win with the air­lines but how to fly smart.

“The con­cept of loy­alty has shifted dra­mat­i­cally. It’s a very dif­fer­ent dy­namic now than it was 30 or 35 years when the su­per car­ri­ers emerged and the mar­kets were not so frag­mented,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel in­dus­try and con­sumer an­a­lyst, re­searcher and co-founder of At­mos­phere Re­search Group.“When you have five air­lines col­lec­tively con­trol­ling 80 per­cent of mar­ket, they don’t have to be as gen­er­ous or as ac­com­mo­dat­ing as they were in 1980 when each had maybe 4 per­cent of the US air­line mar­ket. Since then [the legacy air­lines] have be­come six times as large and all the other air­lines have grown as well.”

The 1978 Air­line Dereg­u­la­tion Act prompted air­line mar­keters to find ways to re­ward re­peat fliers. Amer­i­can was the first na­tional car­rier to launch a fre­quent flier pro­gram when it rolled out Amer­i­can AAd­van­tage in 1981. At the time, an econ­omy seat earned a point per mile to­ward a 20,000-point roundtrip seat that could be earned in a few cross-coun­try jaunts. To­day, that seat costs 20,000 points one-way and soon it will be based not on the num­ber of miles flown but on the amount of dol­lars paid. That means highly com­pli­cated new chart lev­els based on costs of a seat in hard dol­lars and awarded based on mul­ti­pli­ers of those costs and the sta­tus tier level of the pro­gram mem­ber.

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