How You Can Still Use Your Frequent Flyer Miles
Most of the media these days seems to believe that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get a free flight award with memberships in frequent-flier programs. If you listen to these travel experts, it might sound like millions of people are collecting millions of miles, then finding themselves unable to use them. However, reality does not back up this claim.
Yes, millions of frequent-flier program members are earning millions of miles—but they’re spending those miles on award tickets. Every year, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission requires public companies with more than $10 million in assets to file a 10-K report. This comprehensive report includes financial information and, in the case of airlines, information about frequent-flier programs. Carriers aren’t required to publish the exact number of seats designated for award usage, but many do report the percentage of frequent fliers who flew for free during the reporting year—and you might be surprised by the numbers.
American Airlines reported that 62 million members of its AAdvantage program collectively harbored 607 billion award miles as of December 31, 2008. That may sound like a lot, but it’s a six-billion-mile decrease from the 613 billion outstanding miles in members’ accounts at the end of 2007. Of special interest to frequent fliers: The airline issued half a million more free travel awards in 2008 versus the previous year, which is a 19.2 percent increase in the number of awards given out. In 2008, 3.1 million awards were used for travel on American Airlines and American Eagle flights, which represented approximately 9.7 percent of the total number of passengers flown. In the 27-year history of frequent flier programs, that is the highest total number of flight awards given by any major airline, which doesn’t jive with the opinions of pundits who seem to believe that fewer awards are being issued.
Nearly 1 out of 10 passengers traveling on American Airlines last year was flying on an award ticket—a number that does not include all of the awards redeemed by AAdvantage members for award flights on partner airlines or flight upgrade awards. For comparison: In 2007, the airline issued 2.6 million flight awards for travel on American and American Eagle, which represented around
7.5 percent of total passengers.
AAdvantage is a good jumping-off point for viewing the state of all frequent-flier programs, since it’s the oldest and currently largest program in the world (it will soon be bested when Delta SkyMiles and Northwest WorldPerks combine their frequent-flier program membership). And AAdvantage obviously did a good job giving out free flights last year. Most other programs fell below American’s figures for free award flights, so it’s true that some programs are better than others when it comes to handing out awards. However, Continental Airlines issued 1.6 million awards to OnePass members in 2008, which represents about 8.5 percent of passengers; and OnePass gave away 100,000 more awards last year than the program the year before. Not too shabby.
So in the end, while you might not get your first choice of dates or routes, you certainly can fly on an award ticket.
RANDY PETERSEN is the publisher of Inside Flyer magazine and president of Frequent Flyer Services. Email Randy at email@example.com.