Each year, millions of Americans gather with family on the fourth Thursday of November for a traditional Thanksgiving Day feast in celebration of a good harvest. This holiday has given rise to an unusual icon of Americana — the homely and dim-witted turkey.
For all its faults, the lowly turkey looks good on a Thanksgiving table. And like the turkey, some of the events, changes and other happenings that occurred this year in the world of frequent travel are just too ugly to pass unnoticed. Hey, we’ve got nothing against change, as long as it is warranted and reasonable. But as you look over this year’s “Turkey” awards, we suspect you’ll agree — stick a fork in ’em.
HR 4374 — This bit of proposed election-year legislation in Congress was highly touted by other travel news editors, but thoroughly roasted by our very own Randy Petersen, who referred to it as “possibly the dumbest piece of legislation ever.”
Introduced on April 16th by Representatives Gregory Meeks and Mark Foley, it was titled the “Frequent Flyer Tax-Free Liability Act of 2002,” and supposedly would have mandated that the IRS could not tax your miles (something the IRS actually had already agreed to months earlier). The legislation was so timely and important that the “latest major action” taken on the issue (according to the house.gov Web site) was on April 16th — the same day the legislation was proposed.
Truth be told, this was a really, really dumb piece of legislation. How bad? Well, neither the honorable Mr. Meeks nor Mr. Foley mention anything about their sponsorship of this legislation on their respective Web sites — though they seem to list everything else they’ve ever wanted to take credit for.
Rating: 10 turkeys
Midwest Express Frequent Flyer Award Changes — When announcing that it was raising award levels, Midwest Express explained that “change in award levels is the result of changing economic and industry conditions.”
Let’s see … this was right before the airline announced it was selling miles to its members directly (the economy couldn’t have been all that bad, then). As for the result of industry conditions, Midwest Express said “Our Frequent Flyer program has always been one of the most generous in the industry,” and by increasing the award levels it will no longer be the most generous. In case you’re wondering, Midwest Express raised its 20,000-mile award to 25,000, and its 15,000-mile companion award to 20,000, despite the fact the airline doesn’t serve much of the U.S.
Rating: 3 turkeys
Hertz Frequent Flyer Surcharge — Hertz is a pretty good car rental company — it’s just not such a good company when it comes to being an agreeable participant in frequent flyer programs. Its on-again-off-again affair with miles is the subject of great confusion. Why does a company that seems to hate these programs so profusely still stay in the game?
Well, we now know Hertz stays in the game because travelers who rent from the company are willing to help fund its participation. Hertz’s recent switch from a “Frequent Flyer Tax recovery Surcharge” to a “Frequent Flyer Surcharge” essentially charges us not only a fee to offset federal excise taxes on miles earned, but adds a little more to “offset a portion of Hertz’s annual cost of participation in Frequent Flyer programs.”
Our friends at Hertz have earned an honored place in the Turkey Hall-of-Fame; or should we call it Hall-of-Shame?
Rating: 10 turkeys
Ansett Global Rewards — 2.1 million members will lose their awards when this Australian airline goes bankrupt. Ansett is a glaring example of what can go wrong in the world of miles and awards. While we’re not sure what could be done to protect the best interests of members of frequent flyer programs around the globe, we’re disappointed that there is no one on hand to accept this award.
Rating: 10 turkeys
AOL/AAdvantage — This was one of the most expensive, aggressive and ambitious partner programs ever conceived. Was it a good idea? Actually, yes. So what went wrong?
Ego. It seems that AOL could not be part of anything that did not include its initials, and that did wonders to confuse members of both loyalties. In the end, miles won out over the dot.com, but not before creating a wonderful example of what can happen when those in charge forget that these programs are confusing enough without adding unnecessary obstacles. Advice? KISS: (K)eep (I)t (S)imple (S)teve (Steve, as in Steve Case, chairman of AOL).
Rating: 7 turkeys
Delta SkyMiles BusinessElite awards — Recently, American Express announced that Delta Air Lines was joining its Platinum Card benefit program (replacing British Airways), by offering BusinessElite seats to cardholders on a two-for-one basis.
We note that Delta seems to have found some extra BusinessElite seats to offer up to American Express when just last year it scaled back its SWU program citing that it was not possible to deliver these (BusinessElite) benefits to SkyMiles members. Evidently, once Delta “discovered” these extra seats, it didn’t occur to them to reward their SkyMiles members.
Rating: 5 turkeys
Norwegian Competition Authority — Earlier this year the Norwegian Competition Authority, whose main task is to enforce competition law, made a decision that SAS, Braathens and Wideroe Airlines are prohibited from offering their passengers the ability to earn frequent flyer miles on Norwegian domestic flights from May 1, 2002 to May 1, 2007.
We have no problem with any authority that monitors the abuse of market power or reduction of competition in the market, but we do worry that this type of action will allow bad airlines to control the marketplace rather than the better ones. Seems SAS and the others are being penalized because they have been providing what passengers are demanding.
Rating: 5 turkeys
JetBlue TrueBlue — With all the promises and hyped-up expectations that JetBlue received as an airline, its TrueBlue frequent flyer program sure launched with a thud. Other than no membership card for your wallet, was there anything original? Since the launch date, not much has been added — no partners, no super-duper promotions, nothing. Though the airline’s TV offerings and ability to make money set it apart from most other airlines, its frequent flyer program does not. TrueBlew-it.
Rating: 4 turkeys
Diners Transfer Fee — In 2002, Club Rewards joined the growing ranks of frequent flyer partners that pass along the expense of the federal excise tax on frequent flyer miles to their members. Though telephone and car rental partners have been doing this for a long time, Club Rewards was the first credit card program to do so (not yet competitively matched by rival American Express Membership Rewards).
While not statistically expensive, it’s the principle that counts, and this move has upset many members of the program. Given that Diners has introduced a plethora of airline partner bonus conversions, it’s almost forgivable. We said ALMOST. The Diners transfer fee gets a low turkey rating because of the incredible value of this program.
Rating: 2 turkeys
OnePass/FlightFund Alliance — All seemed well between Continental and America West until, that is, America West decided to introduce a new airfare structure in an attempt to get the business flyer flying again. This seemingly well-reasoned and logical move by America West did not set well with other airlines. One unfortunate victim was the unexpected and untimely termination of the reciprocal frequent flyer agreement between Continental OnePass and America West FlightFund. Do you think Continental used FedEx to deliver the news?
Rating: 4 turkeys
US Airways Elite Changes — OK, in trying to save this airline from a sure financial disaster, Dividend Miles decided to throw out its elite members with the bath water. That didn’t go over too well, and US Airways amended its ways — but not before the miles hit the fan. Talk about a tempest in a teapot. The lesson to be learned by other programs: If you’re going to make it through these difficult times, you’ll need all the members of your frequent flyer program. Don’t mess with the hands that feed you.
Rating: 4 turkeys
But wait, there’s more. In a year when things went wrong for just about every one — including us (7 turkeys for the delay in launching insideflyer.com and for two late issues), here’s the list we didn’t have room for: Gordon Bethune/OnePass. The President says there will be no changes for OnePass members because we (Continental) care. The marketing people forgot to tell him they did change the program. The worst part of it all? They never acknowledged the incident and yes, it went away. Can you say 4 turkeys? Other visitors around the turkey table include Aeroplan, OnePass/WorldPerks for untimely changes in a really bad year and finally Mileage Plus. A 67 percent average increase in miles and money for upgrades? A good way to make room-but not new friends.