Airlines slash frequent-flier perks

WASHINGTON — Scott Zaban only flies United Airlines. As a loyal frequent flier, the 33-year-old writer from Washington D.C. is used to being pampered with seat upgrades and ticket awards.

But like a lot of air travelers, Zaban has been caught off guard by a wave of restrictive changes that carriers, including United, are making to their frequent flier programs. Airlines, attempting to counter high oil prices by cutting back perks, are putting new restrictions on seat availability, imposing online booking charges and boosting the number of miles it takes to get upgrades or free tickets. They’ve also added an assortment of fuel surcharges and co-payments to the programs.

Zaban says he’s vexed that it’s taking the airline longer to clear his requests for first-class seat upgrades. In the past, using frequent flier miles, he was able to get them days before take-off. Now he’s getting upgrades just hours before his flights, if at all.

“I can’t get upgrades,” he said. “I have found that to be really annoying.”

He suspects, as do industry analysts, that airlines are hanging on to the seats longer in hopes of last-minute sales. Zaban said he is thinking about switching to another airline’s the frequent flier program. But he’ll have a hard time finding an airline that isn’t making big changes to its program.

Mark D’Arrigo, an attorney from Arlington, Va., is shopping around, too. D’Arrigo has been an elite-level member of the US Airways frequent flier program since 2003. He’s irritated by the company’s announcement that it will stop giving out the extra miles it had been to its most frequent fliers. The airline has also started charging travelers as much as $50 to redeem tickets using mileage awards.

“I’m reevaluating whether US Airways is the program for me,” D’Arrigo said.

This year, D’Arrigo’s extra bonus miles made a vacation to South Africa possible in a business-class seat. Now, he is straying to Southwest Airlines. Earlier this month, he signed an online petition of 2,341 US Airways customers protesting the change.

“I want to emphasize that I do appreciate there are thousands of employees and that they need to make a living,” D’Arrigo said. “But the sense that I’m getting is that US Airways is not in tune with a lot of their frequent fliers and perhaps management could be a little more responsive.”

Despite the complaints, Michelle Mohr, a US Airways spokeswoman, said the company isn’t planning to reconsider the policy change.

Mohr said the “vast majority” of frequent fliers have told the airline that they are most interested in convenience and upgrades, rather than bonus miles. She said US Airways stands to realize tens of millions in savings from the elimination of bonus miles and the subsequent reduction in free tickets.

American Airlines kicked off the frequent flier trend with the industry’s first program 27 years ago. It was invented to reward the most heavy-duty frequent fliers. The programs have evolved to include people who don’t fly very often. Many earn mileage points through credit card and marketing promotions.

Each program has specific rules and award levels designed to satisfy loyal customers. Airlines use a combination of variables to determine the availability of frequent flier seats, including season and popularity of destinations.

Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com, an airline ticket research site, said airlines run the risk of angering their best customers with the loyalty program changes.

“I don’t understand why the airlines think they need to do this,” he said. “They are basically watering down the points by changing the programs. I consider it to be like Russian currency in the early ’90s when it lost its value.”

There’s likely to be little improvement. Seaney predicts that there will be a total of 70 million fewer seats available on airlines next year following the route and frequency cuts they have announced this year. He said that means that planes are going to be packed, giving the airlines even less reason to give away seats.

He and other travel analysts are recommending that travelers book tickets as soon as possible to try to escape some of the fees that haven’t hit yet. Effective Sept. 3, Continental will make it harder for customers on the low-end of its frequent flier program to get seats on high-demand flights. On Oct. 1, American Airlines will impose a nonrefundable “co-payment” of $50 for one-way upgrades for frequent flier customers who buy economy tickets for U.S. destinations. The fee rises to $350 on some international routes.

Earlier this week, Continental imposed a $75 booking fee for customers who don’t book tickets three weeks in advance. As of last week, Delta frequent flier customers have to pay a $25 fuel surcharge to redeem tickets for travel within the United States and Canada and $50 on international routes. American Airlines is charging a $5 online booking fee, which went into effect June 21.

Although oil prices have fallen from a peak of $145 per barrel to $115, Billy Sanez, an American Airlines spokesman, says it’s too early to expect a reduction in the fees. Analysts say fuel costs account for 40 percent of operating expenses, up from 15 percent a few years ago.

“It’s still exorbitantly more than it was last year or two years ago,” Sanez said. “As the market changes, we’ll reevaluate.”

Southwest, which has 70 percent of its fuel costs locked in at $51 a barrel, remains the exception to the program changes. Southwest charges nothing to redeem a frequent flier ticket over the phone and doesn’t have any added fuel fees. Southwest also hasn’t joined rivals in charging for the first or second bags, sodas or snacks.

“We feel like it’s what you see is what you get, and we’re not going to slap on a bunch of fees,” said spokesman Chris Mainz.

The one silver lining to the program changes: Airlines have made it easier to learn online which flights don’t have available seats.

“At least you don’t have to waste your time finding out you can’t find a seat,” Seaney said.

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