Frequent Flyer Scrooge — We visit the Ghosts of Programs Past, Present and Future

Frequent Flyer Scrooge — We visit the Ghosts of Programs Past, Present and Future

Friends, the year is drawing to a close.

It has been a strange one, full of changes and uncertainty. Yet as we reflect on it, let us not forget that 2002 has also had its share of triumphs. Despite our grumblings, justified or not, our beloved programs continue to survive, and continue to demand our loyalty.

To that end, we have borrowed from a holiday tradition in an effort to put the year in perspective. Without further ado, and with humble apologies to the late Charles Dickens, our story begins.

Once upon a time old Scrooge sat busy in front of his computers monitor, scowling at proposed changes to his frequent flyer program. It was cold, bleak, biting weather, but not so frosty as the old man’s disposition when he pondered the change fees, award-level increases and rule adjustments so grievously thrust upon him in the past year.

It was bad enough that his flight home had been three hours late. Now Tiny Tim was hitting him up for an award ticket to Vegas.

“Humbug!” he shouted to the empty room, his face scarlet, his left eye twitching. Never had he — a flyer of some renown — felt so ill-used.

Heated though he was, it was a cold night, and as he stood to wrap his dressing-gown around him, he noticed a small, angelic figure in white, smiling at him.

“Not again! Who…what are you?” he demanded.

“I,” replied the spirit, for spirit it was, “am the ghost of programs past. I have come for your benefit.”

“My benefit?” asked Scrooge angrily. “No one cares for my benefit! If they did, perhaps my Ultra-Diamond-Strontium-Stratosphere-Club status would merit an occasional complimentary upgrade! Bah! Humbug!”

“Nonetheless,” the spirit replied gently, “you have much to learn,” and without another word, took old Scrooge by the hand.

In an instant, the brooding, dark walls of the bedchamber dissolved, and they found themselves floating gently above a great snow-cloaked landscape.

“Where are we?” asked Scrooge, bewildered.

The spirit pointed to a small, weathered sign. “Flyerville” it read.

“Behold,” intoned the spirit, gravely. “It is January of 2002. OnePass and WorldPerks have both just eliminated their 20,000 mile awards. See you not the angry mob?”

And as he spoke, a crowd of furious FlyerTalkers, torches and pitchforks in hand, shouted and cursed, searching for an airline executive to burn.

“But spirit,” queried Scrooge, “Those awards are only returning to their previous levels! The 5,000 mile reduction was a temporary perk!”

“Yes,” the spirit replied, “but their fury knows no bounds. Observe!”

It was then that a lowly messenger from Diners Club approached the mob. He stood in their midst and unrolled a great scroll. In a frightened and unenthusiastic voice, he sheepishly explained that there would now be a small fee for exchanging Club points for airline miles.

He was immediately lynched.

Scrooge winced, and that vision passed. The sweet scent of February filled the air. A few grumbles about subsidizing federal security measures rose here and there until suddenly, there was a blaze of glorious light, and a great trumpet sounded. A voice, strong and true…well, strong at least…okay, actually kind of whiney and accountant-like…announced the news.

“Ahem,” it said. “The Internal Revenue Service will not tax your frequent flyer miles. And oh, by the way, federal employees can earn and burn, just like the rest of you.”

A great shout of joy went up. Scrooge smiled in spite of himself, remembering the sweet feel of the day.

Despite some meager changes that received a disproportionate amount of negative attention, 2002 began with some serious triumphs for frequent flyers.

On December 28, 2001, President Bush signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law. Among its provisions: Federal employees would be allowed to retain their miles. A huge and entirely new demographic was added to the market.

And that wasn’t all. Since time immemorial (or at least 1981), frequent flyers looked with dread upon the possibility of federal taxation of their miles. The IRS had for years flirted with the idea of taxing miles. Yet in February, IRS announcement 2002-18 was released, exempting mileage from taxation. Hardly famous for its generosity, the IRS most likely found too many problems inherent in valuation and tracking. Whatever the cause, though, the owners of the 7 trillion outstanding miles breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Before Scrooge could blink, it was already April, and he found himself in a great hall, surrounded by airline and hotel marketing executives, many heady with strong drink.

“The Freddies!” cried he, noting the rows of great crystal spires that shone in the light of the Holiday Inn Martinique in New York. “Look! Look! Southwest has claimed the award for best program! Oh, congratulations!” he shrieked happily, extending a withered hand to the group at the table, who ate only small bags of peanuts, but evidently bought their seats at a steal.

“They cannot hear you,” said the spirit. “They are but shadows of the past. Your congratulations should have come then.”

The Freddies are always a time of critical mass in the industry. It is a time when you, the warm bodies that fill airplane seats and hotel rooms, are allowed your say.

This past year, the big winners were Southwest, Starwood, and yes, Diners Club, even with their (perfectly reasonable) transfer fee.

Summer was reasonably uneventful — uneventful, that is, until August brought big news. And so we rejoin our travelers…

“Great Scott!” cried Scrooge, “US Airways has declared bankruptcy!” Another crowd had gathered and milled about, whispering in hushed tones about the fate of their Dividend Miles.

While they wandered, desperately searching for yet another cause for worry, they didn’t notice American Airlines creeping silently into their midst. In a wink, a $100 change fee had been posted.
The other airlines, seeing that AA had not been caught or savaged by the mob, tried to follow suit.

“What’s this!” shouted an observant flyer. “A change fee? I’m to pay for convenience?”

The mob erupted into violence, swearing off airlines, furious that they would have to pay even more money.

September and October breezed by, and the divorce of Continental and America West weighed heavily on Scrooge’s heart, until the marriage of United and US Airways brightened him up once more.

Then, just as the new year loomed into view, the landscape melted away, the spirit faded into mist, and Scrooge found himself alone again, tucked securely in his bed.

“A nightmare!” he shouted. “Surely nothing but that! An undigested bit of that chicken a la king I had on the redeye!”

Yet he found his rationalizations of little comfort when, to his chagrin, a brilliant light began to pour through the keyhole. Frightened, Scrooge approached.

He swung the door wide, and was amazed by what he saw. His stodgy parlor had been transformed. The walls glittered in shades of silver, gold, and platinum. And there, in the middle, stood an enormous robed figure.

“Scrooge!” it shouted. “I am the ghost of programs present! Look upon me!”

Scrooge knelt in terror. “Sprit,” he croaked, “What have you to teach me?”

“Elite Status! You cannot pass happily into the next year unless you have earned it! And, as they say, there’s no time like the present!”

Scrooge thought for a moment. Had he earned enough miles to maintain his Ultra-Diamond-Strontium-Stratosphere-Club status?

Elite status is the favorite perk of most frequent travelers. With free upgrades, airport clubs and the like, who wouldn’t want to be a member of the “metaled” classes?

Remember, though, you need to accumulate the required miles or points by Dec. 31 — these things are measured by calendar year,.

So even if you joined in October and are on pace to break every mileage record by next October, you won’t see any status change if you haven’t reached the mark by the end of this calendar year.

We’ve compiled a chart to assist your planning which outlines the various programs, their elite levels and the qualification requirements. Chances are, if you’re a little short, you’ll need to make up the difference by actually flying; after all, these program are ostensibly reserved for the truly frequent flyer, and the bonus points we earn through promotions and credit cards don’t necessarily count.

“Oh, spirit!” crowed Scrooge. “I have earned enough! I need not associate with the rabble when I fly! Oh, thank you!”

“Thank me later,” said the spirit in a booming voice. “For I have yet to show you a more fearful sight. Behold!”

His great robe parted, and there, cowering and clinging to him, were miles. Thousands and thousands of them. All weak, forgotten, ready to die.
Scrooge shivered. “Those miles! Those poor miles! Spirit, what is to become of them?”

“They shall die,” said the spirit sadly. “They shall expire on New Year’s Eve, unless someone loves them enough to engage in qualifying activity.”

While the familiar strains of “Auld Lang Syne” pass into the chilly January air on New Year’s Eve, something else may be passing with them — your miles.

This New Year’s will be unlike any other.

Back in 1999 the airlines, in an effort to decrease mileage liability while meeting the demands of their frequent flyers, struck a compromise between flat expiration and immortal miles. Sparked by Delta’s innovative “passive expiration policy,” most programs decreed that earned miles would never expire so long as some specified activity occurred within three years. And those three years are just about up.

If you’ve flown with your chosen airline within the past three years, chances are you’ll be fine. And though it would be a stretch to suggest that someone who hasn’t flown in the past 36 months is truly a “frequent” flyer, there are more and more mileage earners who may not fly, or may not fly regularly with an airline they hope to earn an award with.

Think that stereo you bought with miles was enough to keep the expiration spirits appeased? Maybe not. And if you’re counting on that recent award you redeemed to keep your miles in good standing, think again. Many programs require that you accrue mileage to stay active. Redeeming doesn’t always count.

That’s why it’s important to do a little personal inventory. In which programs do you maintain a membership? Remember, many programs will stop sending you statements or newsletters if you are inactive for as little as three months. You may not have heard from a particular program in a while, even though you have thousands of miles banked in it.

Once you know where your miles are, determine what is required to stay active. For Alaska Mileage Plan, American AAdvantage, Delta SkyMiles, Frontier Early Returns, United Mileage Plus, and US Airways Dividend Miles, just about any change to your mileage account balance will suffice. They don’t care if you earn or burn, and the change to your balance can be minimal.

America West FlightFund, Continental OnePass, Hawaiian HawaiianMiles, Midwest Express Frequent Flyer and Northwest WorldPerks, however, require accrual. Only by earning can you qualify as active.

The next step, then, is to figure out the easiest, least painful way to make a qualifying transaction. There are a number of options, but before you run to a points-transferring Web site and lose 50-90 percent of your miles’ value, consider less expensive means. There are almost always promotions that will give you 500 to 2,000 miles simply for filling out a survey, changing your email address or signing up for a weekly email. Any one of those activities will generally count toward accrual, and thus active status.

For example, you can renew your status with Delta simply by persuading a friend to join SkyMiles and netting 500 bonus miles as a reward. Or fill out an online survey at HawaiianAir.com and get another 500 mile boost.

Can’t find a “freebie?” Consider buying mileage. At its lowest available increment of 1,000 miles, AAdvantage, for example, will charge you $27.50 to stay active. Want a little more bang for your buck? Pick up or renew your subscription to Inside Flyer for $59.95. We’re allied with just about every program and will toss an extra 1-3,000 bonus miles into your account, in addition to providing you with strategies for getting the most out of your program.

Time is running as short as the winter days. If you’ve been involved in any program before or during 1999, it’s worth your while to scrounge through your accounts to keep them active. Then, of course, you need not worry for another three years.

Scrooge flew back to his bedroom, and seized his wallet. A wad of affinity credit cards erupted onto the floor. He scrambled around, clawing at them, collecting them frantically.

“I…wait…here!” he shouted nonsensically. “Let me order some flowers! Or register online! Or complete a survey! Oh, please, let me do something! Those miles must not expire!”

Suddenly, he awoke, still frightened, still clamoring for some small qualifying activity. Yet the credit cards had disappeared, and he found himself clinging only to the bedpost.

He breathed a sigh of relief, but was not consoled for long. For there, from the shadows, glided a tall hooded figure, its face obscured, its spectral finger beckoning.

“You,” asked Scrooge, shuddering, “are the ghost of programs to come?”

The thing would not answer. It only motioned for him to follow.

“Very well,” said Scrooge. “I am ready to learn what you have to teach me.”

The bedroom became an airport, and the two found themselves standing in a huge line of noisy, angry passengers waiting to check in.

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, “Why are we standing here? Let’s use the express check…” but before he could finish, he noted with alarm that there was no express check-in.

“Well, then, let’s go with another airline!”

The gaunt spirit lifted a bony finger and gestured up and down the terminal. Huge signs at all the check-in desks read “Gargantua Airlines” as far as the eye could see.

“There…there are no other airlines?” Scrooge asked meekly.

The spirit shook his head.

Scrooge’s heart sank. “Let’s get a drink at the club, then,” he sighed, beating a familiar path to its door.

But there, where the Stratosphere Club used to be, where he had wiled away many happy layovers with free cocktails and magazines, stood a pimply-faced teenager.

“Welcome to Tofu-Shack!” he said in a cracking voice. “Can I take your order?”

Scrooge screamed. “Spirit! Please tell me! Is this the way things must be, or only the way things might be? Surely, there is something that can be done! I’ll pay the change fees! I’ll stop complaining every time my miles take a week longer to post! Please, don’t let this happen!”

But the spirit simply stood silently. Scrooge fell back into a chair, trembling, his eyes shut.

Suddenly, a great commotion surrounded him. A baby squalled to his right. To his left, a 300-pound biker snored loudly. The seat in front of him reclined into his face, and a beverage cart smacked him in the knee.

He opened his eyes, and with dawning terror, realized where he was.

“Coach!” he shrieked. “Oh, the horror!”

He awoke in a cold sweat, his heart racing, his knee still smarting from the cart laden with four-dollar beers. Yet he was safe, back in his room, the last of the spirits having departed.

“I’m not in coach! I’m home! The programs aren’t gone! There’s more than one airline! I’ve never been so happy!”

He flew to the window, and gazed out onto the streets below, where a child was putting the finishing touches on a snowman.

“You there! Boy! What day is it?”

The boy looked up. “Why, it’s New Year’s Eve, sir.”

“New Year’s Eve! I haven’t missed it! But I need some qualifying activity … Boy, do you know the poulterer’s on the next street?”

“I should say so, sir,” he answered.

“Do they still have that prize goose hanging in the window?”

“The one as big as me?”

“Yes, yes! I’ll give you a free upgrade certificate if you’ll run over and buy it for me!” He was about to toss down a silver crown, then stopped. “Wait a minute,” he said, pulling out an affinity card “…use this. I get 10 miles per dollar on it.”

That very night, Scrooge held a feast for all his business travel associates, and made rather merry, swearing all evening that he would never take his frequent traveler programs for granted again, and would cherish his elite status in his heart.

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to the airlines and hotels, who did not die, he was a loyal customer. He became as good a flyer, as good a guest, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.

It was always said of him, that he knew how to earn and burn miles well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

Our tale ends, but its lessons are eternal. Yes, our programs should be customer-focused, and yes, occasionally the airlines make mistakes that should be noted. Chances are that we will see some changes in 2003, and not all of those changes will be for the better. When you make your decisions, though, keep in mind that we need these programs as much as they need us.

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