American and Southwest Go to War With Award Wallet and Similar Mileage Tracking Websites

Scott McCartney ran a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal on moves by American Airlines and Southwest to shut down websites that help you manage your mileage balances.

The two carriers have sent “cease and desist” letters in the past year to several websites that track travelers’ loyalty programs. Southwest argues the third-party sites threaten security of passenger information; American doesn’t want outsiders “scraping” data off its website.

I use AwardWallet and would be very angry at American if the site were forced to no longer track my American miles. I’d genuinely be less interested in collecting American miles, since those points would be more cumbersome to track. A few points here, a few points there, I see my account balance update when I check all of my miles on one website at one time. Adding going to to my regular routing would be frustrating and taxing, and going less often would mean being less engaged in the program and having greater difficulty noticing the small changes to balances that tell me whether points from specific offers have posted. And since American will no longer be counting miles from any sources towards lifetime elite status beginning December 1, there’s no longer going to be more value in earning American miles through offers than other mileage currencies.

McCartney points out that many airlines don’t just claim that you don’t own your miles, but don’t own your passwords either, and are forbidden to give those out.

But why do the airline programs really care? Southwest claims it is a security issue, having your password given out to another site. But if that were true, why don’t airlines like United and Delta go after these aggregators as well? And why not just require these websites to certify their security standards and indemnify the airline in the case of negligence?

McCartney hints at the real reason:

Frequent-flier program experts say airlines may simply be worried about losing revenue to other websites. When customers log in to check balances, they see advertisements on the airline website and may be tempted by sales and specials. If they go elsewhere to check balances, the airline has lost a sales opportunity.

That, said Southwest’s Mr. Clarkson, is “not the core spirit of why we’re doing it. But there is a residual benefit when we’re the only place they can access the information.”

American says they don’t like the extra load on their servers, but really it’s because “The carrier hopes to upgrade so members can compare fare prices with mileage requirements, the spokeswoman added” — in other words, don’t take our eyeballs or we can’t control the message and how we sell to them.

Seems antiquated to me to go to court to take away something from your customers that they value.

So what of the status of these mileage tracking sites? pulled American from its website last month, and other sites say they are trying to negotiate with American. AwardWallet, MileWise, GoMiles and others don’t offer tracking for Southwest accounts.

I don’t even have a Southwest account and haven’t flown the airline since 1993. Jonathan Clarkson, the head of the Southwest Airlines frequent flyer program, will definitely be getting some questions during his live Milepoint chat on October 20. I encourage you to take part and share your thoughts with him as well.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The airlines must be seeing less and less expiration of miles due to sites like AwardWallet so this is their way of getting back at them. AwardWallet is a killer app for me in tracking all my accounts. If all the major airlines put a full legal assault on these sites they don’t have enough $ to fight it.

  2. I didn’t think WN was included in Award Wallet as it is? Last I checked, AW says they provide a field for WN, but you have to enter your balance manually. So nothing new here. And WN is notorious for forcing kettles to their website — they don’t play ball with a single OTA, right?

    And AA has certainly had feuds with Orbitz and the like before, no?

    I love the ‘load on our servers’ argument….. if AW was really sending a significant load to the legacies, .bomb would surely have been the first to crash!

  3. Yeah Clarkson will be getting questions in his interview but you can be absolutely sure he will be giving pre-canned bullshit answers to all of them!

  4. I agree with @Mike — I’m pretty sure that one of the top reasons (if not “the” reason) is mileage expiration. Airlines count on the fact that many people hoard miles and eventually lose them (or have to pay dearly to buy them back).

  5. If you figure the point of miles to begin with is to attempt to gain customer loyalty, and that the point of sites like AwardWallet is to help people deal with the overload of points programs, I think there’s an obvious problem. AW and the like want to help us be a part of each and every program, but AA and WN want us to only be in their program.

    I use AW and rely on it, but it does almost make it too easy for me to track my scheming. I can understand why AA would want out.

  6. Who cares? I use a spreadsheet anyway, don’t trust any sites with my passwords. How hard is it to track 10-15 loyalty programs? Just do it once a month and write down the expiration date.

    I also like to not miss any sales or promos on the airline or hotel sites so this works pretty well.

  7. These airlines seem to think that what they want with regard to following their incentive programs is more important than what WE want. I think they will learn otherwise over time.

    I am a WN guy and I think the best way we can convey our displeasure with the changes wrought by RR 2.0 is to completely ignore Jonathan Clarkson’s online chat. Almost universal condemnation in the WN FT forum since March.

    Rick: Monitoring 10-15 programs is one thing. 50-60 is another (mine, wife’s, mother-in-law’s, parents’, son’s). For me, Awardwallet is a godsend.

  8. I work for an online marketing company and I’ll tell you it’s all about the eyeballs. The airlines might only minimally care/hope that miles actually expire, they HAVE to plan that no miles will expire. Their concern is all just unique pagehits, and they probably can’t count anything that hits an API or similar as an actual hit. If they hope to show growth in their online presence to their shareholders and thus justify further investment they’ve got to show traffic, and one easy way to get traffic is get people checking their balances. Expiring miles give them one more group of people to check the site and provide visits without buying something.

    Companies are always looking to boost that unique pageviews monthly number, it’s why Google bought YouTube. Once you have the visits then you look to monetize it.

  9. I think they are fighting for the ad revenue and secondly don’t mind seeing people’s miles to expire. If they would allow miles to never expire then I wouldn’t care as much if I had to visit AA web site to view my miles. It would still be an annoyance but just a small one.

    Award Wallet presents a nice overview of all your miles which is useful if you need to move some around in order to attain a reward.

  10. Well, the “security” argument is bogus, since AA participates with and it works the same way as AwardWallet and the others — you give your passwords!

  11. I wish loyalty programs would let users create additional less privileged passwords. That way, I could give Award Wallet a password that had just “read only” access to my account and was unique to AwardWallet, and I could give a different password with whatever privileges it needed to execute trades.

  12. Guys, I agree the inconvenience but the idea that there is no security risk is silly.

    You have no idea what award wallet is doing with your information. You have no idea if award wallet itself is secure and has not been hacked. Importantly, neither do AA.

    The airlines have a duty of care to secure your information and I think it is bluntly shocking that other airlines allow this access.

    Grumble about AA/Southwest and use this service by all means.

    But also do consider if you really want to store credit card information on anyway website that can be accessed in this way.

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