It's the 10th anniversary of frequent flier programs, one of the most effective marketing tools in the history of the airline industry.
While less than 30 percent of frequent flier miles earned each year are actually used, 3 percent to 6 percent of the passengers on any given flight are likely there because of such awards.
Times change. Faxing in your award requests is now a common way to redeem frequent flier miles. In the current strained economy, more people are cashing in travel awards rather than letting them build up. Increasingly, airlines award triple frequent flier miles in order to spur travel.
The number of members is amazing. According to the monthly publication Frequent, American AAdvantage has 14.2 million members; Continental OnePass, 8.4 million; Delta Frequent Flyer, 9.7 million; Midway FlyersFirst, 623,000; Northwest HTC WorldPerks, 8.1 million; TWA Frequent Flight Bonus, 6.1 million; United Mileage Plus, 12.9 million; and USAir Frequent Traveler, 7.5 million.
Airlines are playing hard ball. They've been cracking down on discount brokers, which make their money by buying and selling frequent flier awards. Carriers filed a raft of lawsuits, Northwest Airlines leading the pack with 15 filed. Three brokers were recently enjoined in federal court from selling American Airlines awards.
"Discount brokers have really been driven out of business by the airlines, with just a few still around, but a positive side effect is that most airlines have now relaxed their rules on transferability of awards," said Joseph Brancatelli, executive editor of Frequent Flyer magazine, annual subscription cost $24.
Discount brokers say the consumer should have the right to choose how he uses his awards.
But the airlines say selling an award takes away one of the seats offered to actual frequent flier members on each flight.
Affinity cards tied to airlines, which give a frequent flier mile for every dollar charged, are tightening their controls as well. A number of banks say some cardholders run up huge balances each month to get the frequent flier points, then pay the bill in full so the bank earns no interest. The Mileage Plus First Card, a Visa card issued by First National Bank of Chicago in conjunction with United, recently enacted a cap of 10,000 mileage points per billing period with a maximum of 50,000 per year.
Learn the frequent flier basics. Upgrades from coach to first class cost between 10,000 and 20,000 mileage points. Average number of miles required for a free round-trip ticket on most airlines to Hawaii is 30,000; Europe, 35,000; Asia, 50,000; and the Caribbean, 25,000.
Pay attention to restrictions put on the awards. USAir, for example, limits travel based on geographic zones. Some airlines require a Saturday night stayover. Restrictions on travel include blackout periods when free tickets aren't honored and capacity restrictions when only a certain number of seats on a flight are eligible for free tickets. If you need your tickets in a hurry, it will cost $25 to $100 to express-deliver or wire them.
Frequent fliers can transfer awards to both friends and family, so long as it is done in front of the airline ticket agent. The tickets are then automatically issued.
"Try to use your frequent flier awards on the 'shoulder' travel season, rather than peak periods, so it won't be as crowded and you'll be able to get the flights you want," advised Randy Petersen, editor of Frequent, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., with annual subscription of $33.
Petersen suggests potential fliers look at carriers operating in their area, examine their financial strength and find out minimum miles required for a trip to register miles toward an award. Find out how often bonus deals are given. Determine whether the carrier has partner programs with foreign carriers or cruise lines.