Remember the good old days, when frequent flyer programs were easy to decipher and actually rewarding?


Travelers earned mileage based on distance traveled. Airlines rounded mileage up to 500 for short flights, free tickets were easier to accrue, miles never expired, and award travel was basically free, requiring little more than a Saturday night stay. Airline programs rewarded both casual and business travelers alike.


Improving the travel experience?


As profit margins and responsibilities to shareholders began to dramatically outweigh loyalty to customers, airlines began to look at frequent flyer programs at best as a source of revenue and at worst as a nuisance to their bottom lines.


Who doesn’t love corporate doublespeak? Take for instance writing New Look! on a box of cereal while simultaneously shrinking the contents of the box and raising the price. In similar fashion, airline spin doctors were out to chip away at their frequent flyer programs while somehow attempting to sell the changes as improvements.


Programs began to take on more restrictions, rewarding far less. Redemption mileage levels increased, “free flights” became “award travel” with added surcharges and fees, “revenue basing” meant passengers needed to wade through complex charts to determine they weren’t actually earning mileage based on distance but on ticket price, and mileage points could now expire, unless you traveled again within a certain time frame. Oh, and good luck actually getting a seat on a flight next time you try and redeem those miles because award seating is limited.


Tier Out Your Hair


Airlines have ramped up the rules and regulations and increased the number of status levels of their programs. So much for simplicity, but hey, in obfuscation lies customer apathy.


Leave it up to the airlines and spin doctors to bamboozle the weary traveler into thinking there is still value in frequent flyer programs. True, those who travel often and fork over a ton of cash are rewarded, leaving the infrequent flyer with smaller and smaller platters of leftovers.


Delta, United and American have four frequent flyer tiers, Alaska has three and Southwest two. Armed with such nifty titles as Platinum, Gold, Silver, Ruby and 1K, each tier above the occasional flyer comes with its own dizzying rulebook of qualifications and rewards.


Yes, for those travelers who log large mileage and buy pricey tickets, the airlines will offer rewards, but even elites need to check out the fine print. For the rest of us, we wish you luck accumulating enough points to actually score free travel.


Our Open Letter to United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz re: the 17 Hour Stranding in Goose Bay, Canada:
Open Letter to United CEO Munoz