Mileage Programs Adding New, Complex Rules That Make Your Head Spin. The Program Execs Themselves Don’t Even Understand Them…

On the whole I have personally liked how complicated frequent flyer programs are.

  • The more complicated they are, the greater the opportunities for identifying unintended value opportunity and the greater opportunities for arbitrage.
  • They’ve allowed the creation of businesses like this one to help guide folks through the morass.

Programs are so complicated the the people running them don’t understand them. Pre-interviewing an executive from a major frequent flyer program for a panel I moderated last year, the individual shared that they’re in meetings frequently talking about how to build something or change something and everyone in the room will come to a stopping place and someone will have to take an action item to look up how a feature of the program actually works, what the rules are. The group in the room, managing the program, doesn’t actually know or understand.

But when Delta creates three different metrics — qualifying miles, qualifying dollars, and redeemable miles — that accrue to a single flight, and five award redemption tiers just for coach, things are getting increasingly complex.

I’ve written in the past “How Do Normal People Ever Manage to Navigate Airline Bureaucracies.” In many ways I do this for a living and the number of roadblocks and airline mistakes I run into on a daily basis are mindboggling. It’s the combination of a surreal degree of complexity meeting technological ineptitude.

One simple example of this is how United award tickets for travel on partner airlines have a history of not ticketing and re-ticketing properly. And then you have to hang up, call back until you find someone willing to help with a make-good, usually opening up space on an airline’s own flights to complete travel that the airline fouled up in the first place.

While revenue-based frequent flyer programs were once touted as consumer-friendly due to their ‘simplicity’, United — which goes revenue based for earning in just over a month — has sprawling, complicated new and different charts for points-earning on each of their partners. Lucky reproduces the dizzying charts.

Years ago I managed to credit Cyprus Airways flights to Delta Skymiles, even though Cyprus wasn’t a Delta partner, because the flights were codeshares with Skyteam-member Alitalia. Skyteam has historically gone more by flight code than operating carrier, which used to strike me strange.

Yet a couple of recent Delta mileage-crediting questions really stuck with me in terms of underscoring just how in the world are consumers supposed to know what to do?

  • Passenger purchased premium economy tickets from Air France, that included a segment operated by Saudia (which doesn’t have premium economy), in late 2014. Delta’s twitter team assured that the Air France-coded Saudia segments would earn SkyMiles. Delta refused to credit those miles, explaining that Saudia flights didn’t earn miles with Delta until 2015. Of course there was a Saudia earning chart last year, but it was no longer on the Delta website (replaced by the new 2015 chart). The old Air France chart, it turns out, excluded Air France codeshares on Saudia from earning Skymiles. Should the passenger have known this?

  • Passenger has tickets on Delta and Virgin Australia, with the Virgin Australia flights carrying a Delta code. They don’t want to credit the miles to Delta. Which Virgin Australia partners can they credit miles to? Or Which Delta partners? Not Alaska, not Singapore, not Korean.. and Virgin Australia itself has residency requirements for joining the program which the passenger doesn’t meet.

In the former case, Delta ultimately gave the miles as a goodwill gesture.

In the latter I advised that since they’re in business class anyway they should pull the frequent flyer numbers out of the reservation and obtain clean boarding passes — which they should save. That way they can submit those boarding passes for retro credit with one airline after another until they do get credit, because of course published mileage-earning exclusions do not mean that mileage credit won’t be provided in practice!

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. Don’t let whoever made came up with this screwy breakdown anywhere near Congress when it decides to overhaul the Tax code…

  2. Even in today’s Wall Street Journal, an article describes how complicated upgrades have become and how United doesn’t know if their system will generate a refund for paid option’s on upgrades that don’t end up getting fulfilled.

    Loyalty programs are choking on their own success as they try to eke out every bit of value.

  3. Delta won’t even always credit flights you BUY from them. Last year I purchased a flight that included a KLM codeshare on Estonian Air on the Delta website on Delta ticket stock and they just refused to credit mileage for that segment because the operating carrier isn’t a Delta partner.

  4. Lantean’s comment literally made me laugh out loud

    it is an ironic delight to hear “government” and “simplicity rules” in the same phrase

  5. I’ve never been able to figure out if the miles I have been credited with on a flight were the corect miles or not and now I don’t feel so bad that I haven’t. But, I’m quite sure that is just how the airlines want it. The way we’re going, it won’t be long before the “loyalty” programs are a distant memory.

  6. This has been my pet peeve for years, and it’s only getting worse. I think we may be at the breaking point this year when ordinary folks (who can’t possibly understand most of the rules) see how few miles they’ve earned from their flights in the revenue-based system.

    It is possible to have a simple revenue-based system. Southwest’s is fairly straight-forward: I think I could get people to truly understand how it works in less than 10 minutes: and there aren’t a lot of loopholes and exceptions. It makes sense that the loyalty programs of the legacy carriers would be more complicated, but the current level of complexity is mind-boggling.

    Does it have to be? National achieves my loyalty with a remarkably simple free-day award system. Most hotel loyalty programs are fairly simple and awards are easy to come by. I think the airlines do themselves great harm by not adhering to the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle.

  7. It all makes me very glad that I (virtually) never earn any miles from flying. Consequently revenue-based earning doesn’t worry me. But if the airlines go to revenue-based redemption… that’s when I’ll start weeping bitter tears.

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