Frequent Flyers Hit Some Turbulence

If you’re thinking about cashing in some of your frequent flyer miles, be prepared for a triple whammy from the airlines. In the past few weeks, several carriers have announced changes that include boosting the number of miles you need to qualify for a free ticket, charging a booking fee when you buy tickets with miles you’ve earned, and cutting back the number of seats that are eligible to be purchased with your miles. Among the major carriers, for example, Delta, American, Northwest, Continental, and US Airways have all slapped new or increased booking fees on customers who buy tickets with frequent flyer miles.

If you’re thinking about cashing in some of your frequent flyer miles, be prepared for a triple whammy from the airlines. In the past few weeks, several carriers have announced changes that include boosting the number of miles you need to qualify for a free ticket, charging a booking fee when you buy tickets with miles you’ve earned, and cutting back the number of seats that are eligible to be purchased with your miles. Among the major carriers, for example, Delta, American, Northwest, Continental, and US Airways have all slapped new or increased booking fees on customers who buy tickets with frequent flyer miles.

These moves, along with an end to bonus miles for so-called elite frequent flyers by US Airways, have resulted in a consumer backlash. One example is Savedividendmiles.com, where travelers can sign an online petition asking US Airways to bring back bonus miles. Other frequent flyers are changing carriers, with some switching to airlines that so far have not announced any added or increased fees or new restrictions.

All of these changes reflect the reality of oil prices that hover in the $120- to $140-a-barrel range, say the airlines. With margins squeezed by higher prices for jet fuel, there’s little choice except to pump up revenue, and the new or increased fees are a way to do that. Besides, says one airline official, the negative feedback from travelers has been a lot less than when the airlines rang in other revenue enhancers, like charging for food.