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Where are all the miles now?

Dear Tim,

This may not be the appropriate time to be discussing airline frequent flyer miles, but my livelihood requires that I fly at least once per week. And I use my miles to offset the costs of future trips. (No award trips to Hawaii for me!)

I’m surprised and disappointed that the airlines, United in my case, haven’t flooded our mailboxes with special mileage offers to get people back on the planes. Since I have to travel for business, even during these times of high stress and long security lines, I was expecting to at least earn some extra miles. (The empty flights, I have to say, have been terrific for those of us actually flying.)

What’s the deal here?


Dear Sid,

You’re not alone in wondering, “Where are the miles?” Here we are, more than two weeks after the terrorist tragedy and the subsequent falloff in air travel, and so far we’ve seen almost nothing in the way of frequent flyer promotions. Nor, for that matter, have we seen any new widespread fare sales.

Several factors account for this disconcerting lack of marketing activity.

First and foremost, the airlines’ primary focus has been forcibly shifted from marketing initiatives to survival tactics: Cutting capacity by 20 percent, laying off tens of thousands of employees, renegotiating aircraft purchases, petitioning the federal government for a bailout, and so on.

In addition, even if promotional activity were higher on their list of priorities, the airlines have always observed an unwritten rule about advertising after an aviation-related disaster. The rule: cease and desist, until the crash or hijacking or whatever is no longer a high-profile news story.

And, lastly, as a practical matter, it takes time to design special promotions, adjust computer systems to selectively award the extra miles, train customer service staff, and, finally, communicate the offers to members of the carriers’ frequent flyer programs.

Returning to the original question: Will the airlines in fact deploy miles as a traffic-generator, and when?

I’ve already been proven wrong on the “when” part of the question. My best guess immediately after the events of September 11th was that we would see aggressive mileage offers in place quickly, and certainly by now. I guessed wrong, as did many other airline-watchers.

But I remain convinced that mileage offers are coming. Indeed, my airline sources tell me that promotions are “in the pipeline,” and that we’ll see them “soon.”

Also in the pipeline are at least two other mileage-related developments.

In consideration of the travel slowdown, most airlines will make it easier for their best customers to reach elite status. That will take the form of lowering qualification levels or, perhaps, allowing miles from secondary partners (i.e. non-airline program participants) to count toward elite qualification.

And capitalizing on the sea of empty seats, expect the airlines to offer more award sales in the coming months. For example, Delta has reduced mileage requirements for domestic coach awards from 25,000 to 15,000 miles, for travel through October 14. Continental has a similar offer, having cut the mileage required for many international award trips in half, to 17,500.

While most of the post-disaster mileage news (or news-to-be) is good, consumers should be on the lookout for the clouds that may come with the silver lining. Notwithstanding the federal government’s bailout, this will be the worst year, financially, for the airlines since the beginning of commercial aviation. Some airlines aren’t expected to survive. And with disappearing airlines we will have disappearing miles. Look for a full-length article on this worrisome topic in the next few weeks.

Tim Winship
Contributing Editor

Editor’s Note: Since the publication of this Q&A, Tim Winship’s original predictions have been borne out. Most major airlines launched double miles offers, award travel specials, and courted elite travelers with various promotions. Find the latest mile-earning offers at

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