One of the issues that really exposes the nefarious double-speak of the airlines is their frequent flier programs. Ostensibly, the airlines seek to kindly reward their customers for their business, and to encourage them to continue to be customers into the future.
But the truth, obscured behind layers of double-talk and fine print, is sadly somewhat different. Did you know, for example, that the frequent flier miles you earn do not belong to you? According to the terms and conditions of the frequent flier program, ‘your’ frequent flier miles belong to the airline. This is the same whether you earned the miles from flights, from credit card charges, if they were ‘gifted’ to you, or if you plain bought them – they are the airline’s miles, not yours. Yes, you can buy miles from the airline, but you don’t actually get something that belongs to you in return!
You didn’t know that? Go check on the terms and conditions of your program. But, be prepared to do a bit of digging. For example, I bet you can’t find United’s Mileage Plus terms and conditions within say five clicks of their home page (I can’t).
Delta’s program rules are easier to find, and while they don’t actually come out and say ‘you don’t own your own miles’ that is the bottom line implication of what they do say. If they can take them away from you, if you can’t sell them to someone else, and if Delta can change the program rules at any time, or even end the program, it is clear you have no ownership rights in ‘your’ miles at all.
So what exactly is it you have received when you somehow see your frequent flier mile balance grow? That’s a good question, and the answer seems to be ‘less and less than you might think’. You need more miles than ever before to get a ‘free’ ticket – and even the concept of ‘free’ is dubious, because many times you’re up for charges to get the ticket issued, and/or changed, and/or cancelled – charges that many times exceed the cost to the airline of providing you with the free travel. Besides which, even if your ticket is free, maybe they’ll be able to sting you for a bag fee or some other additional charge during the flight.
Okay, so most of the preceding is old news, although perhaps you didn’t know that your miles don’t belong to you. Not only can you not freely transfer your miles to someone else, but if you die (or should that be – when you die!) your miles won’t automatically be part of your estate and passed on to your survivors.
But wait – there’s more. Here’s an excellent article that exposes the latest bit of perfidy on the part of two airlines – American Airlines and Southwest – when it comes to mileage programs. These airlines are trying to make it difficult or impossible for third party frequent flier mile manager programs to access your account information as part of the mile management services they offer.
Now why would the airlines object to these services knowing your mile balances, expiry dates, etc? Oh, the airlines trot out plenty of facetious excuses (quoted in the article) that range from uproariously ridiculous to plain pathetic, but do you think the real reason is they simply want to make it as hard as possible for you to manage and optimize the value you get from the frequent flier miles they grudgingly give to you? Surely not!
Indeed, these days, the airlines seem to want to distance their programs from the entire concept of frequent flier miles. Look at the AA Aadvantage ‘Style Guide’ where it says (point four of heading ‘Use of Company Names and Trademarks’) :
The AAdvantage® program may only be referred to as the AAdvantage® loyalty program, not a frequent flyer program
I preferred it when Aadvantage was a frequent flyer program, and felt much more loyal then than I do now that it is a ‘loyalty program’. I don’t even know that ‘loyalty program’ means, and I suspect the fuzzy phrase indicates AA’s own desire to avoid defining what Aadvantage no longer is, too.