Should Expiring Miles Be Illegal?

Tim Winship at The Real Deal covers a proposed law in Ontario, Canada and asks if expiring miles should be illegal?

In some jurisdictions you can’t expire gift cards. Or it’s unclaimed property, the value of which would be treated under escheat rules.

Ontario, Canada isn’t important enough for any program based outside of Canada that the author acknowledges,

And as a practical matter, if passed, the bill would only apply to residents of the province of Ontario. Rather than carve out special policies for Ontario citizens, loyalty-program operators would be more likely to prohibit them from participating in the programs altogether.

Expiring Miles are Fair — and Good for Engaged Members

The broader question is an important one. In Italy programs themselves are required to expire. But you can imagine laws going the opposite direction. However I don’t think expiring miles are all that unreasonable.

  • From a loyalty program’s perspective they want engaged customers. Asking for some kind of earning or redemption — even an online purchase or crediting one rental car every year and a half is a fairly de minimus level of engagement. For the truly passive buying 1000 miles every year or so works too.

  • Loyalty programs are businesses, with budgets, they have to decide how to allocate their expenses across their members and redemptions. One kind of investment is to change expiration policies. No expiration defers revenue until redemption occurs and reduces breakage (increases costs). That means not investing elsewhere in the program, choosing to invest in infrequent un-engaged members rather than investing in more frequent customers.

Canada’s Air Miles were going to enforce a new points expiration policy starting January 1. They’ve decided to withdraw that policy. That’s a $200 million hit to their bottom line but they’re planning devaluations to compensate so this probably doesn’t wind up as a win. (HT: Chris R.) Be careful what you wish for complaining about points expiration!

Two Airline Programs in the US Don’t Expire Their Miles — They Aren’t the Good Ones

Delta eliminated expiring miles in 2011 and JetBlue eliminated them in 2013.

It was somewhat odd when Delta made the change because they were a pioneer in expiring miles, and in shortening expiration times. Having cleaned up their balance sheet and recognized the revenue (capturing years worth of benefits from expiration) they eliminated the policy.

Until they re-institute it, after all Delta once advertised during the Superbowl that their miles would never expire, before introducing expiration. When they ended the Delta Frequent Flyer program and launched SkyMiles, with expiring miles, they promised that miles earned under the old program would never expire. But then they decided that old miles would be merged into SkyMiles, and those old miles would therefore.. expire.

Delta had also committed that any elite member who continued to maintain their status could always redeem their old Frequent Flyer miles under the original program’s award chart, that promise went poof as well. Delta’s explanation? The terms and conditions of the program said they could change the rules.

In 2007 the head of the SkyMiles program said “anyone who hasn’t had activity with Delta in anyway in the last two years, is not all that valuable to us.”

Stop Complaining About Expiring Miles

Airlines get so much more criticism for expiring points but hotel programs are more draconian, often with 12 month expiration (Hilton, Starwood) and not always counting all activity in extending the life of an account (Marriott).

Why do we complain about 18, 24 or 36 month expiration?

Tim Winship writes, “Sure, it’s easy enough to extend the life of miles, by making the occasional qualifying transaction or using a program-affiliated credit card. But such tactics aren’t widely understood..”

He acts as though programs don’t tell members about expiration, hiding the ball. That’s certainly not been my experience. Should members have any expectation of them to know about the program and pay attention to the emails they get? Or to use something like AwardWallet that will tell them about expiring miles?

Here are airline expiration policies and 10 ways to keep your miles from expiring.

Toward a Middle Ground?

Is there a difference between expiring 3,000 miles in the account of a member who hasn’t done much else to engage with a program – ever – and expiring 300,000 miles from a long-term customer that’s gone dormant for a period of time, perhaps retiring after a lifetime of earn and burn?

I tend to think that airlines (and other loyalty programs) shouldn’t be required to keep all miles as liabilities on their books indefinitely.

But there’s something squirrely about discarding a good long-term customer who accumulated rewards in good faith over a period of time but has become inactive. I don’t have a fundamental problem with saying they must stay active in some de minimis fashion every 18 months (and some allowance should be made for a program that doesn’t hear from a member not to have to search to determine whether they’re deceased, although there are many ways programs handle this).

Perhaps big balances ought to have more generous expiration terms than small balances, or accounts with a certain tenure or activity over years ought to be treated more generously than new and immediately dormant accounts.

What Do You Think, Are Expiring Miles Fair?

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 laws specifically allows for inactivity based expiries, banning only those that occur due to the progression of time alone. This seems like a reasonable balance, it allows to cut members who aren’t doing anything and are inactive, but protects the lower spenders who might take 10 years to save for the reward they want. In Air Miles case, it was that rule “all miles expire after 7 years” that drove the law into existence.

  2. Speaking as a Canadian, please be informed of what is actually the case: the Air Miles program had implemented a 5 year hard expiry a la Krisflyer. Legislation that was being tabled in Ontario would provide carve outs for activity based account closures a la Aeroplan (who removed their 7 year hard expiry back in 2013)

    As this only really affects Asian and European mileage programs yes I could see them deny Ontario residents from participating if the bill actually goes through

  3. Clearly there has to be some way for program operators to get dormant accounts off the balance sheet. But, at the same time, 18 months seems too short. Things happen in life which can easily consume 2 or 3 years – starting a family, a major medical emergency, job loss etc. – during which period it’s understandable that people won’t be concentrating on obscure rules of mileage programs.

    To my mind, the law should match people’s expectations. Monetary assets lie in a bank and there’s no need to have activity every 18 months to avoid confiscation (and banks have procedures and laws which cover dormant accounts). Airlines may not see it like this, but many people see their miles as some form of liquid asset, akin to money. So, in my view, the law and practice should evolve to match people’s expectations – no confiscation.

  4. Delta miles expire when you do – changed a few years ago from where you could will them to a spouse or child. So we can never say that Delta Skymiles do not expire – the expiration date is the date you die!

  5. So many aspects of life reward the diligent and attentive and penalize the oblivious. I see that as a lamentable aspect of free markets and exploitation of people who have plenty of other problems in their lives. It may be inevitable but it’s not something to be celebrated.

  6. Gary you’re totally wrong here. I go out of my way to accrue miles with programs that have more lenient expiration policies. The loss in business due to bad expiration policies is measurable. JetBlue once expired all my miles for lack of travel over 12 months. When I got a new gig I started flying Virgin as a result

  7. I’m an Ontarian, and I knew from as soon as the provincial legislature brought this up as a bill that points programs are in trouble here.

    This was the final resolution suggested but the real problem is that for years Airmiles had an absolutely terrible redemption system, and they started removing options. I gave up on it when they replaced converting into IHG points with booking any hotel with their own online booking engine that rarely showed you the hotel you wanted. Then they changed the rules to force you to decide whether you were collecting miles to redeem for travel/merch or gift cards when you earned the points rather than when you wanted to redeem them.

    It’s just that the expiration made too many people realize how bad a program it is all at once.

    Also, while foreign programs can write off Ontario, Aeroplan can’t so we can expect further devaluation there.

    And to top it off, there’s likely going to be a class action of collectors who spent their miles to get something before they expire when what they wanted to do was keep saving for that all-inclusive a vacation package.

  8. Governments incur liabilities for cash held by the public; expiring the cash relieves them of these liabilities and allows them to invest elsewhere. You want to see how well this works? Right now there’s a billion-person experiment going on in India.

  9. I’m not sure where to start. On the one hand, I am an American consumer, and so — to a certain extent — used to getting screwed over by “Big Business.” Ergo, I have come to expect (and, unfortunately, accept) things like expiring miles and devaluations. I don’t like it, but I’m resigned to it happening. (Is my cynicism showing yet?)

    On the other hand, I’ve taken steps to make sure it doesn’t happen — no doubt all to the airline’s benefit more so than my own. That is, for those programs most valuable to me, *either* I have a co-branded credit card through which I earn points on a steady basis and thus have no concerns about inactive accounts and expiring miles, *or* I am shifting my earning patterns away from earning miles with “Airline X” and to programs with transferable points (i.e.: Chase UR, Citi TYP, and SPG).

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