AOH :: FREQFLYR.TXT|
Angry Frequent Fliers
FIGHT BACK! BY DAVID HOROWITZ
Angry Frequent Fliers
Frequent fliers have a love-hate thing going with the airlines
these days. They love the free trips and upgrades but they don't like
changes the airlines are making in their frequent-flier redemption
rules. On Feb. 1, several major airlines raised the number of miles
required to earn free tickets and upgrades and lowered the number of
seats available for frequent fliers. The airlines gave mileage holders
a year's advance notice, and many rushed to convert their mileage to
tickets before the deadline. But some of those who didn't are angry
and frustrated that their accumulated mileage has been devalued.
This is not the first time passengers have gone to war with the
airlines. When American Airlines changed its rules in 1988, a Chicago
attorney filed suit on behalf of the four million members of
American's AAdvantage program, claiming the airline had breached a
contract with its frequent fliers.
Similar lawsuits in the past were thrown out on the grounds
that regulating the airlines was a federal matter and that state
courts had no jurisdiction over industry practices. But in January,
the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that passengers could sue the airlines in
state courts for breach of contract (though they are still precluded
from suing under state consumer fraud statutes).
The high court's ruling does not mean that passengers have won
their case, only that only that the American Airlines lawsuit can now
proceed through the courts, as can similar suits pending in Illinois
against United and Delta. It may be years before passengers receive
any compensation from the airlines, if ever. But the decision has made
carriers more cautious about changing the rules of their frequent-flier
While all this was going on in the courts, Secretary of
Transportation Federico Pena announced that his department is
tightening its control over airline advertising, scheduling -- and
frequent-flier promotions. Pena said passengers "expect seats to be
available in the frequent-flier programs in which they participate." As
part of a new enforcement effort called "Traveler First," Pena
announced he is setting up an Office of Consumer Affairs to
investigate passenger complaints of all types.
airlines don't play fair with their passengers, he might shut down
their frequent-flyer programs altogether. That's ironic, since the
airlines would probably like nothing better. American Airlines started
the whole idea back in 1981. Since then, it's become a monster the
industry has simply had to live with.
These promotions are expensive, time consuming to administer
and a public- relations nightmare when the airlines' best customers
complain they're being mistreated. But they are also so successful at
generating repeat bookings that major carriers can't afford to give
them up, at least as long as the competition is still out there
offering bonus tickets and upgrades.
So for the moment at least, the airlines are still free to call
the shots and change the rules as they see fit, invoking the clause in
their brochures that says such offers are "subject to change without
If you have any questions or comments, please write to David
Horowitz in the Consumer Forum+ (go FIGHTBACK).
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