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How the British Airways Changes Will Affect You

Within the last three weeks, British Airways has made two moves that will have a big impact on you U.S. travelers—even if you don’t ever visit Britain.

New Frequent-Flyer Program: BA is following the lead of Delta and United in revising its Executive Club frequent-flyer program to favor spending amounts rather than miles flown. The new program doesn’t copy the same formula—it still measures earnings in miles—but it achieves a similar result:

  • Travelers on the most expensive full-fare first-class tickets will earn three times actual mileage, and travelers flying business class will earn 2.5 times the actual mileage.
  • Travelers on premium economy will earn up to 50 percent more than actual miles, travelers in expensive “flexible” economy fares will earn full mileage.
  • But travelers who buy the cheapest available economy tickets will earn only 25 percent of actual miles, and in the future, some promotional fares may earn nothing.

Why does it matter if you don’t fly BA? Because American Airlines is likely to adapt the BA formula when it gets around to revamping its own AAdvantage program. American didn’t immediately follow Delta and United into a dollar-based program because it was—and still is—preoccupied with merging AAdvantage with US Airways’ Dividend Miles. But nobody expects the merged line to retain its old, completely miles-based earning program. And because of American’s close-to-de-facto merger with BA, American is more likely to adapt the BA formula than to copy Delta or United. So far, this is just my speculation, but it makes sense. Southwest and JetBlue already operate their programs on a dollar basis, so the end result should be that most of North America will follow that pattern.

BA also increased the miles—BA calls them Aveos—required for some flights, but the new rates pretty much match most other big lines. Unfortunately, however, BA has had nothing to say about eliminating the odious fuel surcharge, or “airline-imposed fee,” on supposedly “free” frequent-flyer award trips. This scam is one BA policy I suspect that American will not copy, at least for its own flights. It already adds the charge to flights on BA.

Aer Lingus Merger: The other big BA news is that Aer Lingus, the longstanding Irish airline, has tentatively accepted the acquisition offer from IAG, the parent company of BA, Iberia, and Open Skies. Aer Lingus is something of a hybrid: Its European network, based on a hub at Dublin, is pretty much a low-cost carrier in the mode of Ryanair and EasyJet. But it offers two-class transatlantic service to/from Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, and Washington, and it often undercuts fares to Europe beyond Dublin with connections. The industry expects that the various government agencies involved in these matters will likely approve, perhaps requiring Aer Lingus to give up a few “slots” at London/Heathrow.

For BA, expanding the hub operation at Dublin offers some big advantages. Heathrow, BA’s primary British base, is overcrowded and is a terrible place for travelers to make connections. Dublin, on the other hand, offers the huge advantage of pre-clearance for travelers to the U.S.: You go through U.S. customs, immigration, and agricultural functions in Dublin and arrive in the U.S. as a domestic traveler without standing in any lines. The Dublin airport is also user-friendly, although it will probably have to expand if BA focuses a lot more traffic there.

As with Iberia, Aer Lingus will retain an identity separate from BA. To cater to “high value” customers, Aer Lingus will probably add business-class seating to its short-haul European flights. It will likely do something about an improved long-haul economy option, as well, adding either a few regular economy seats with three or four inches of extra legroom, as American does, or installing true premium economy, on the BA model. Schedule coordination with BA, American, and Iberia may result in new nonstop transatlantic flights from additional U.S. and Canadian cities. In any case, then, with codesharing and trading of “slots,” a connection in Dublin may be in your future.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2015 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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