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.