As the Internal Revenue Service clamors to profit from the largesse of frequent-flier programs, a separate band of federal and local politicians appears to be working in favor of consumers. In mid July, the Department of Transportation's Aviation Enfor cement Office formally requested nine U.S. airlines to provide detailed information about their frequent-flier programs including seat availability for free trips. The move came in response to an earlier and ongoing DOT review of frequent-flier programs which indicated that airlines may not be providing consumers with adequate information about predetermined seat limitations.
Data from American, Continental, Delta (1993-96 only), Northwest, TWA, United, and US Airways. Source: Inside Flyer magazine.
Just two weeks later, Mark Green, Public Advocate for New York City, released a comprehensive study on the availability of frequent-flier seats on eight major carriers serving the New York metropolitan area, in response to complaints from consumers who tried to cash in miles for free flights and were told that no seats were available. On the domestic and international routes that Green's office tested, United had the best availability, Delta the worst. "We did this survey because a lot of people are accumulating a lot of miles, but when they want to use them, they can't," says Glenn von Nostik, research director for the Public Advocate's office.
Both studies reflect ongoing passenger antipathy for the airlines' refusal to make public their seat-limitation policies. The carriers are not required to inform consumers of the actual numbers of seats available for passengers traveling on frequent-flier awards, as they are compelled to disclose on-time performance and overall safety records. Although the airlines must announce blackout periods, according to Terry Trippler, editor of the newsletter "Airfare Report," they make an unreasonably small number of seats available to award winners and are ostensibly "enticing people to become members when it's almost impossible to redeem the tickets."
Although the DOT has not indicated when it will release a final study on seat-availability policies, Green's report did advise full disclosure. If it emerges that airlines have indeed unfairly restricted seat access, they could be prosecuted under state consumer-protection laws and forced to pay heavy penalties. "If the airlines have created misrepresentation, people will have the right to damages," explains Thomas A. Dickerson, a judge in Yonkers, New York, and author of Travel Law.
Full disclosure would also give more power to consumers, who have been steadily losing ground with the airlines over the last decade. First, beginning in 1989, airlines introduced three-year expiration dates on unused miles. In 1995, they raised mileage requirements for free transcontinental flights by 5,000 miles. And as of January 1, both United and Continental are requiring Saturday-night stay-overs on most award tickets. Also, Delta will no longer allow most program members frequent-flier upgrades on selected discount airfares.
Meanwhile, many foreign airlines- including Air Canada, Ansett Australian, Canadian Air, and Qantas- have introduced two-tiered mileage-awards systems: Only passengers paying full fare will receive full mileage credit, which essentially penalizes disc ount-ticket holders. Although this trend has yet to penetrate stateside, TWA recently began awarding extra miles to coach passengers paying full fare.
Airlines are likely to continue introducing disincentives for redeeming frequent-flier miles -especially when revenues from the sale of affinity miles start to drop. As the chart to the left shows, their efforts thus far seem to be paying off.