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New Rules Change Life Expectancy of Frequent Flyer Miles

October 16, 2006 – Do you know when your frequent flyer miles expire?

Don’t be too sure. Recent and upcoming changes at several airline programs are changing the rules governing how long miles or points remain active, and whether (and at what cost) expired miles can be reactivated.

A look back

Over the 25-year history of travel rewards programs, mileage collectors have seen it all, from miles which disappear after a scant 12 months to miles with no expiration date whatsoever.

As the plans matured, though, they have tended to conform to one of two competing models, one for programs hosted by discount carriers, the other for full-service airlines.

Led by Southwest, most low-cost carriers opted for a harsh approach to mileage expiration, scrubbing points from members’ accounts just one year after they were earned. That made accumulating sufficient points for a free ticket virtually impossible for all but the most frequent flyers since earnings disappeared faster than they could be replaced by new points.

Meanwhile, the old-line airlines congregated at the generous end of the spectrum, allowing participants in their programs to extend the life of their miles by three years every time they either earned miles or cashed them in. With such a liberal policy, and so many ways to earn and redeem miles, there was no compelling reason why miles should ever expire.

After a long period of relative calm, there have been five significant changes made or announced during just the past 18 months. And there may be more to come.

Southwest

The first move in the recent wave of shake-ups was Southwest’s policy change, in August 2005, from a one-year to a two-year expiration schedule for Rapid Rewards points.

Rapid Rewards members paid a price for the additional time to use their points: in conjunction with the liberalized life-of-points policy, Southwest imposed capacity controls on award seats, making them harder to come by.

JetBlue

A year after Southwest’s change, JetBlue in August 2006 modified its one-year points expiration policy to permit TrueBlue members to extend the life of their points an additional 12 months every time they charge $200 or more, or a JetBlue ticket, to the American Express JetBlue credit card.

JetBlue’s policy shift was no doubt at least partly in response to Southwest’s.

ATA

Discount airline ATA recently announced a change in its points expiration policy, also in response to the changes initiated by Southwest.

Beginning October 1, Travel Awards points will be valid for two years, twice their previous life span.

Unlike JetBlue’s move, which was a competitive countermove, the change at ATA was made in the interest of maintaining consistency between the programs of Southwest and ATA, which are currently linked through a marketing partnership between the two carriers and eventually could be merged into a single program.

US Airways

US Airways — which reinvented itself as a discount carrier following its bankruptcy and subsequent merger with America West — reviewed its three-year rule and deemed it too generous (read: expensive) for its new corporate personality. So it will reduce by half the period during which Dividend Miles members must have account activity in order to preserve the life of their miles.

According to the company’s website: “Effective January 31, 2007, active membership status is based on having earned or redeemed miles within a consecutive 18 month period.”

In conjunction with the policy revision, US Airways is introducing a new program feature, allowing expired miles to be reactivated for an additional 18 months for a $50 processing fee plus $.01 per mile. That means it would cost $300 to rescue 25,000 miles — a questionable value proposition since a ticket without the restrictions associated with frequent flyer awards could probably be purchased on the open market for that amount.

Delta

Proving that the issue of mileage expiration is not confined to the low-fare operators — and raising the specter of changes from the likes of American, Northwest and United — members of Delta’s SkyMiles program have been put on notice that they will have less time to earn and burn their miles before losing them.

After December 31, 2006, miles will expire after two years of account inactivity. The new policy applies retroactively as well: miles in accounts with no activity during calendar years 2005 and 2006 will also expire on December 31, 2006.

Aeroplan

The latest change alert comes from Canada-based Aeroplan.

Beginning in 2007, Aeroplan miles will expire seven years after they’re earned. And beginning in July 2007, accounts without activity during a 12-month period will be closed, with all miles deleted.

Expired miles and closed accounts can be revived, but only by paying for the privilege — an administrative fee of C$30 plus $0.01 per restored mile.

A mile is a terrible thing to waste

What can mileage collectors do to keep their miles from expiring?

Begin by joining and participating in programs in which there’s a realistic expectation of earning an award.

In Southwest’s program, for example, members must fly eight roundtrips within 24 months to earn a free ticket. For many leisure travelers, that’s an impossibly high hurdle.

Then keep current with the policies of all programs with active accounts and the expiration date of miles and points in each.

In programs with extendible miles, use a program-affiliated credit card or sign up for miles-for-dining. Regular use of either will keep all banked miles alive with minimal supervision and intervention.

And if earning miles proves difficult, remember that redeeming miles extends the life of banked miles as well. Most larger programs allow members to cash in as few as 400 miles for a magazine subscription. That’s an efficient use of miles and an easy way to keep accounts active.