Time Flies Faster with Airlines' New Rules

The latest adjustments could affect everyone from leisure travelers to those enrolled in multiple programs who will have to watch them more carefully.

Jan. 28 -- Last year, Gary Leff and his wife spent their honeymoon touring Asia, and the 10 flights between them didn't cost a dime.

Leff has become something of a master frequent flier, having socked away hundreds of thousands of miles over the years in dozens of airline programs. So when he heard he could lose miles on US Airways, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines as those carriers work to weed out dormant frequent flier accounts, Leff thought it was unfair.

"They [fliers] spent time accumulating points, and when they finally get there, it's like Charlie Brown and that football -- it keeps getting pulled away," said Leff, a chief financial officer for a Washington-area university research center.

He's not the only one griping.

Frequent fliers and those who monitor air travel say these popular programs are in the midst of big changes as major airlines work to ensure that their best customers get more of the free tickets.

In past years, financially strapped airlines have reined in frequent flier programs by limiting available award seats and increasing the miles needed to get a free ticket. The latest adjustments -- primarily cutting the time that consumers have to collect miles without using their accounts -- could affect everyone from leisure travelers caught off guard by the new rules to those enrolled in multiple programs who have to watch them more carefully.

It's another hassle at a time when more passengers are vying for free seats, consultants say. To make more money on the programs, airlines have spent years drawing in participants by teaming up with retailers, credit cards and online sites to offer extra credits or miles. But the influx of new program members -- now at an estimated 100 million -- means that casual travelers who don't update their accounts frequently could stand to lose thousands of miles if they don't act soon.

"There's some concern out there," said Tim Winship, publisher of frequentflier.com, a consumer Web site, who expects many travelers to give up on their plans as the changes continue. "Why bother playing the mileage earning game when it's so frustrating when it comes time to redeem?"

Airlines used to give passengers three years before cutting miles from dormant accounts. But that began changing at the end of 2006.

US Airways was the first to switch to 18 months, and miles in those accounts will begin expiring Wednesday if a customer has let his frequent flier number become dormant for that long. United, which recently followed suit, will drop accounts that haven't been used for 18 months beginning at the end of this year. Miles in Delta's program began expiring last month in accounts dormant for two years. Continental Airlines reserves the right to close accounts inactive for 18 months but it doesn't do so as a practice.

Airlines insist their most frequent fliers will benefit because they will compete with fewer people for award seats.

"This change makes our Mileage Plus program better for customers who are most loyal to United, reduces our operating costs and brings our program in line with major competitors," said Dennis Cary, United's senior vice president of marketing, when the changes were announced this month.

Many consumers rush to update their accounts when miles are about to expire. And the practice has become much easier than in years past.

Before frequent flier programs were opened to other merchants, some travelers prevented their miles from expiring by taking a cheap and easy flight from Washington to New York or across the San Francisco Bay. Today, miles can be earned by booking a hotel room, using an airline credit card or even buying a magazine subscription or using a particular cell phone.

Frequent fliers who participate in multiple programs often pay close attention to changes. But many might let their programs lapse through inattention or frustration, and that could help those left in the programs get the shrinking number of free seats.

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