Airlines wake up to benefits of mileage redemption for unsold seats

IMG_0439There are few more frustrating aspects of being loyal to an airline or a global alliance than the inability to redeem the miles you’ve worked hard to earn for what are known as award flights. There is, however, something even worse: Airlines choosing to send out flights with empty seats rather than make some of them available for mileage redemption.

I’m referring to saver award levels, not those that require double or triple miles. As it is, round-trip saver awards require as many as hundreds of thousands of miles these days.

Last week, I called out Air New Zealand, one of the worst offenders — particularly in Business Class — on Twitter. With a few hours left until its Los Angeles-London flight on Feb. 2, there were six unsold Business seats. Yet not one of them was available on miles. On the same flight the next day, 16 Business seats were open — again, no award space. The coach cabin was wide open on both days, so the carrier wasn’t protecting Business seats to accommodate a so-called oversell in economy…

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Do presidents trust the Foreign Service?

FPPresident Barack Obama followed tradition at the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly this week by engaging in perhaps the most intense diplomacy this year, juggling everything from the Syria crisis to development aid. At his side were mainly politically appointed aides, including National Security Adviser Susan Rice, her deputy Benjamin Rhodes, and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power. But most of the people working behind the scenes to make it all happen are career diplomats, also known as Foreign Service officers — a group of about 8,000 Americans who, along with about 5,000 technical staff, serve in 275 embassies, consulates, and other missions around the world.

Over the years, the Obama White House has been criticized as being too controlling on foreign policy, running an overly tight ship, and keeping these professionals at the State Department — the Foreign Service’s home agency in Washington — at arm’s length when it comes to the issues the administration most cares about. Critics cite the Iran nuclear negotiations and the secret talks with Cuba as recent examples of diplomacy where more professionals could have been included at earlier stages. Does that suggest a lack of trust?…

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United raises ticket change fees by $50, others follow

MIA 033United Airlines has quietly increased the fees it charges for voluntary changes on tickets for travel within North America, and between North and Central America by $50 to $200. The change took effect on April 18, according to an internal company advisory sent to employees.

The decision makes United the airline with the highest change fees in the affected markets. Other major legacy U.S. carriers, such as American, Delta and US Airways, still charge $150, and smaller airlines like Frontier and Virgin America charge $100. Alaska Airlines’ change fees are $75 online and $100 by phone. Those fees, which Southwest Airlines proudly spares its customers, are in addition to any fare differences. Changing the most expensive — or full-fare — tickets doesn’t incur penalties on any airline.

The United fee increase, coming just a week after the carrier was named worst in customer service in a national ranking tracking airline performance, is certain to anger United fliers even further. Industry watchers will be monitoring very closely whether other airlines follow suit — that has been the trend historically, though customer backlash and social media outrage have forced carriers, including United, to reverse controversial decisions in recent years…

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Flying with Obama and earning miles

One of the questions I’ve been asked most frequently in the last decade is whether I’ve earned any frequent-flier miles from my nearly 200 flights with four U.S. secretaries of state. Sadly, the answer is no — and what makes it even sadder is that my press colleagues accompanying the president do get miles and even elite status.

I’ve known many journalists over the years who were top elites purely as a result of White House travel. Some of them didn’t really use their elite benefits because of their very limited commercial flying. There were also a few who didn’t even know they had the coveted status.

So why the differentiation? The above photo will help explain things. I snapped it while waiting for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Beijing a year ago — we flew to Afghanistan that day.

Clinton’s plane is the one of the right — as I wrote last year, it’s the Air Force version of the Boeing 757, also known as C-32. Air Force One — the Boeing 747 on the left — was waiting for President Obama and later took him to Seoul.

The State Department traveling press corps — about a dozen on average — flies on the secretary’s aircraft. Air Force One, however, has enough seats only for a pool of 12, and usually more than 100 reporters go on a foreign presidential trip. There is a rotation for the pool seats on every flight, but most of the time reporters fly on a so-called press plane chartered by the White House, usually from United Airlines.

What you don’t see on the above photo is that, across from the two Air Force planes, to the left of the traffic lane, there was a parked United aircraft, which was of course the press charter.

Everyone on that plane earned United miles, and many of those traveling with the president regularly have 1K status — United’s highest published elite level, requiring 100,000 flown miles per calendar year. Moreover, fliers get first-class mileage credit, which means 150 percent elite-qualifying miles.

Before every trip, different airlines bid for the charter contract, and the White House travel office and the White House Correspondents Association choose the offer they deem best. Although most of the time they select United, for Obama’s trip to Asia last week the winner was Delta Airlines.

The trip took travelers around the world — they flew over the Atlantic en route to India, then went to Indonesia, South Korea and Japan, before returning to Washington via the Pacific. According to the Great Circle Mapper, that’s about 22,000 miles. Delta spokesman Anthony Black declined to say whether the fliers will earn mileage, citing “customer privacy.”

I admit I’ve been a little jealous about all the “missed” miles over the years — almost half a million — but I never wanted to cover the White House because of the domestic politics involved in that beat.

I found another way to earn miles from official trips. After flying almost 100,000 miles with Colin Powell in 2003, I’d had it with non-mileage-earning flights. I still needed to re-qualify for 1K. The following year, I decided that I’d go on the secretary’s plane but would drop off at the last stop and come home commercially. Now I’ve been 1K for a decade.

Some of you might think I was crazy to give up a seat on the secretary’s plane and a hassle-free journey, not having to worry about passport control, customs and sometimes even security screening.

But I thought about it in a different way. I was paying half the price the State Department would charge me — yet, I was getting much better seats as a result of business-class upgrades, mileage credit and better food — yes, even on United.


Related stories:

My trips with Clinton back in the news

In air with Clinton on first trip abroad

Clinton weathers job’s long flights

Press ready for Obama, Clinton travel

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‘On the Fly’ Column

LATEST: Swiss Air overplays ‘mistake fare’ excuse

Airlines sometimes make mistakes when filing fares — it’s human and understandable. But when major carriers keep erring and then punish paying customers by unilaterally canceling tickets days or even weeks after their issuance, that raises questions about competence and responsibility. In late September, Swiss International Airlines filed a First Class…


2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008

AUG 31: ‘Gardening’ your airline reservation

JUL 03: How airlines could make more money

JUN 19: Is the airline market really not working?

MAY 22: How to recognize and fight airline tricks

MAY 15: Why airline alliances are good for fliers

APR 30: American tries to entice top United fliers

APR 17: Rare airport luxury, almost wasted

MAR 27: Diplomats decry new United pet policy

MAR 07: Did United choose the best rez system?

FEB 15: Round the world in a week, without pain

JAN 17: Rethinking government air travel costs

JAN 09: DOT keeps false ‘each-way’ airfare ads


DEC 20: Fighting airlines’ attempts to overcharge

DEC 14: FareCompare guts airfare search tools

DEC 07: Airlines still think customers are stupid

NOV 22: Questioning conventional airfare wisdom

NOV 11: India tries to blackmail Star Alliance

NOV 02: Carriers lose appetite for Tokyo Haneda

OCT 26: Airlines neglect non-flying experience

OCT 18: U.S. fares now filed four times a day

OCT 05: The benefits of non-airline credit cards

SEP 19: Consider options before giving up airline seat

SEP 14: How much slack do the airlines deserve?

SEP 06: Is the travel-agency model sustainable?

AUG 23: Is media coverage of air travel helpful?

AUG 08: Air India had no chance with Star Alliance

AUG 02: United steps up fake ‘direct’ flights

JUL 26: 17 hours of tax-free airline tickets

JUL 13: ExpertFlyer boosts airfare transparency

JUL 05: British Air, Iberia’s dysfunctional merger

JUN 21: My book ‘Decoding Air Travel’ is out

JUN 08: DOT cracks down on airfare advertising

MAY 25: Should airline booking codes be secret?

MAY 18: British Air loses bags on $12,000 ticket

MAY 04: American’s antiquated ticketing process

APR 27: Airlines, want better GDS model? Unite!

APR 19: Singapore Air’s inept agents, dark side

APR 14: What are your hotel pet peeves?

APR 07: American wins first battle in data war

MAR 30: Proper airfare advertising comes to U.S.

MAR 23: Hilton tries hard to lose my business

MAR 16: Kralev International launches website

FEB 24: Delta SkyMiles needs new leadership

FEB 14: US Airways denies StarNet blocking

FEB 10: GDS travel-booking model faces change

FEB 01: Wyndham today, Sheraton tomorrow

JAN 12: The risks of third-party airline bookings

JAN 04: When airfares jump on you for no reason

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Photo essay from Bulgaria

Nicholas Kralev and photographer Astrid Riecken traveled to Bulgaria in October 2009 as part of a trip to Eastern Europe, which also included Germany and Poland, to produce a special section in the Washington Times on the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall.

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