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United imposes harsh mileage-expiration policy

First, the fact: United will reduce from three years to 18 months the period during which Mileage Plus members must have account activity in order to keep their miles from expiring.

The new policy will take effect on December 31, 2007, and apply retroactively. So on that date, accounts with no qualifying activity since July 1, 2006, will lose their miles.

United’s press release of January 19 was subtitled, “New 18-month expiration policy preserves award seats for United’s most loyal customers and reduces the company’s frequent flyer mileage liability.”

There is no doubt the second claim is valid: Reducing the number of outstanding miles on its books will indeed reduce United’s liability. But the claim that the new policy will make it easier for active program members to redeem their miles? Questionable at best, laughable at worst.

If someone hasn’t earned or redeemed a single mile in 18 months, how likely is it that he’s a significant drain on United’s supply of award seats?

United’s move isn’t unexpected. Delta recently cut back its mileage-expiration policy from three to two years; US Airways slashed the life of its program’s miles from three years to 18 months. But what adds insult to injury is that United chose to copy US Airways—a discount carrier whose policies predictably tend toward the stingy—rather than Delta’s more magnanimous, consumer-friendly changes.

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