Mileage-maven alert: Frequent-flier freebies are nothing to write home about


Worth's May cover story, "The Frequent Flier Rip-Off," is the very best kind of consumer reporting -- the kind that tells you to stop worrying about comparison shopping (in this case, for frequent-flier miles) and invest your energies in some pursuit with a better rate of return.

Comparing the airlines' reward systems with other "frequency-marketing discounts," or rebates to the best customers, writer Jeff Blyskal finds them among the chintziest: The value of frequent-flier freebies, he calculates, averages a 3.3 percent effective discount, with a high of 6 percent (Southwest Airlines) and a low of 1.5 percent (USAir). To qualify for these measly payoffs, travelers schedule roundabout flights, switch to more expensive credit cards and waste precious hours "obsessing over maximizing mileage, keeping up-to-date on program rules and special offers, rescheduling travel."

And if you earn your miles on employer-paid travel? In Mr. Blyskal's example, your company pays $12,348 for the 14 Newark-Chicago round trips that earn you a free domestic ticket. The same 14 trips on Kiwi would cost only $2,912 -- and the extra $9,436 makes that free ticket, valued at about $208, "a very expensive perk." So next time your friends start comparing mileage plans, remember, you've got more rewarding things to think about -- like whether it's time to cash that check and switch to MCI.


Scientific American (May) also looks to the skies, with a piece enticingly titled "The crisis in air-traffic control." Despite the headline, though, and a moderately scary picture of a controller tracking overseas flights via handwritten strips of paper, the magazine refuses to predict anything dramatic, like a system-wide crash.

The crisis is really an ever-more-tangled bureaucratic muddle, as one revamping effort after another runs over budget or misses the technological target. But there's one unforgettable bit: We learn that the FAA's eight Sperry-Univac computers, 30 years old and still directing air traffic, "share a paltry 256 kilobytes of total memory. If they were personal computers, they could not run Flight Simulator" -- because the computer game requires eight times as much memory. Those frequent-flier tickets just got even less attractive, didn't they?


Harvard's been pressing its star grads into service for the big spring fund-raising kickoff, and Harvard Magazine (May/June) does its part by interviewing a reluctant Tommy Lee Jones '69, former roommate of Al Gore. "I'm not a movie star. I am an actor," growls Mr. Jones in response to a question. "I'm not going to talk about my children, . . . I'm not going to rehash what I said," and so on. Most unsatisfying.

Luckily, a copy of the Dartmouth Alumni Review arrived in the mail, and it proved a much richer source of Ivy League trivia. It was the April issue, "Dartmouth's Gifts to the World" -- a veritable People magazine of notable alums, such as TV executive Pat Weaver '30, who brought J. Fred Muggs to the small screen (shown in a family snap with little daughter Sigourney); Dr. Seuss '25 and Mr. Rogers '50; and the inventors of the portable batting cage and the hardware-store paint mixer. Dartmouth also claims credit for the goldfish-swallowing fad: A photo shows "Harvard swell" Lothrop Withington Jr. doing the deed in 1939, some 27 years, according to Dartmouth loyalists, after Frank Farnham Greenleaf '16 blazed the trail. This particular "gift" gets big play on page 8, while the Dartmouth Review, a hot topic through much of the '80s, doesn't come up till page 51. Which may be a clue to the priorities of the '90s, or just of the magazine's editors.


Mother Jones (May/June) and Life (May) both have covers on breast cancer, and both stay in character: Life offers up mutually supportive survivors and hopes for a cure or a vaccine; MJ argues that such environmental poisons as DDT are insufficiently examined, partly because of medical biases, partly because of their manufacturers' political clout. (A study published last week by the National Cancer Institute failed to support, though it didn't disprove, a link between DDT and breast cancer; still, MJ says, Israel's breast cancer rate dropped 8 percent in 10 years when several pesticides were banned.) Life's piece is about "finding hope"; MJ stresses fighting back, with a handy pullout poster reminding women to eat their vegetables, nurse their babies and lobby their legislators.


The less we cook, the more we spend on reading about cooking, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report. The publishers of Garden Design, a chic new bimonthly edited by Dorothy Kalins, longtime Metropolitan Home editor, obviously hope baby boomers will take to upscale fantasy gardening with the same ardor. . . . W, the fashion industry monthly, visits Roseanne Arnold at home and gets a tour of her wardrobe: The plaid-shirttail queen, who talks of getting into the clothing business because there's no fashion for the big woman, in fact has acres of designer clothes, including separate closets for the hats and the shoes. So that's why Roseanne keeps dragging the skeletons out of her closets -- to make room for the Manolo Blahnik mules!

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