March 7, 2014

I’M SURE IT’S GEORGE W. BUSH’S FAULT, SOMEHOW: Better Use Those Points: The Sad Decay of Frequent Flyer Programs.

If you’re a frequent flyer, you might have noticed that your miles don’t go as far as they used to. Spurred by rising costs–from fuel to flight training–and too many passengers with too many points, airlines are taking the pruning shears to their loyalty programs, cutting everything from the value of a mile to the perks their most elite flyers receive.

Why? The industry never really recovered from the massive downturn in business after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and over the past decade, airlines have been trying to squeeze every last penny out of their operations. First it was baggage fees, then came overpriced snacks and drinks. Frequent flyers were insulated from many of these costs, receiving free checked bags, first class upgrades, and free flights in exchange for loyalty, but now airlines are looking to their most loyal customers to help keep them in the black.

It started with United last fall, which made sweeping changes to the amount of points its Star Alliance members needed to upgrade or book flights. Now its Delta’s turn. The airline, which flies more people more places and has a fervent rewards fan base, rolled out a new policy that makes transcontinental and other upgrades even harder to obtain for its SkyMiles members. In addition, a new pricing scheme set to begin next year will make earning points significantly more difficult.

I’ve always said that frequent-flyer programs are a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie. When I was flying enough to be a Royal Medallion frequent flyer, I wasn’t looking for more chances to get on a plane. Making the experience more pleasant is better — but they don’t seem to be doing that, either. Personally, I’d pay a premium for more comfortable seats — though I’d pay a bigger premium for more reliable flights. That, alas seems the least likely perk of all.