American tries to entice top United fliers

American Airlines has finally decided to take advantage of the problems many United Airlines fliers have experienced since the merger with Continental Airlines was completed on March 3. In an extremely rare move, American is now offering conditions-free top-elite status match to United’s most loyal customers.

Having read and heard about many United customers’ troubles after the carrier adopted Continental’s reservations system — and having encountered some problems myself — I e-mailed American spokesman Tim Smith on March 16. Smith has been the best PR person to deal with at any airline since I started writing my column in the Washington Times in 2008. I asked him whether American had any intention of capitalizing on United customers’ dissatisfaction by stealing some of them away through a status-match offer…

The benefits of non-airline credit cards

You may have seen TV commercials featuring American Express or Capital One credit cards that promise points or miles with the clout to get you any seat on any airline without blackout dates. Those financial services companies try to distinguish their own loyalty schemes from airline programs, which restrict access to award seats.

Non-airline programs are not affected by award seat limits, because they don’t need award availability to book you on a flight. Instead, they sell you a regular revenue ticket, charge the ticket price on your credit card, then credit the cash amount back to your card and take miles or points out of your account, whose number is based on a standard formula…

Delta SkyMiles needs new leadership

Delta Airlines has cemented its status as the network U.S. carrier with the worst frequent-flier program, further devaluing its long-cheapened SkyMiles. The leadership of the program or the airline — or perhaps both — doesn’t seem to understand what the loyalty business in 2011 is about. It may be time for a new team at the top.

For more than a year, Delta failed to publish an award redemption chart for most of the world, resulting in lack of transparency about how many miles were really needed for an award ticket. When it finally unveiled a chart this week, the mileage rates on many routes were increased significantly. Many loyal SkyMiles members felt cheated and disrespected, calling Delta’s move a “stunt” in comments posted on FlyerTalk, the largest online travel community…

US Airways denies StarNet blocking

US Airways has denied recent suspicion that it has begun to block award seats made available by its Star Alliance partners for mileage redemption by members of its Dividend Miles program — a practice pioneered by United Airlines, which I first exposed in 2008.

The airline has been silent on the issue since reports about apparent blocking surfaced last fall. Many travelers said they found award inventory on various Star carriers, using one or more of the publicly available sources — the websites of All Nippon Airways, Continental Airlines and Air Canada — but US Airways agents were unable to see those available seats…

United, Continental execs at odds over loyalty program

The management teams of United Airlines and Continental Airlines have never seen eye to eye when it comes to customer loyalty, and that seems to be causing trouble during their merger preparations. My inside sources tell me that Continental executives don’t quite understand United’s big emphasis on loyalty in recent years.

It also appears that Jeff Foland, who last week was named head of the combined carrier’s frequent-flier program, Mileage Plus, will have a tough job selling United’s current philosophy to his new bosses in the Continental team, which will run the company once the merger is completed, most likely around year’s end…

United’s award blocking an issue in Continental merger

Just as many loyal United Airlines customers hoped that its expected merger with Continental Airlines would put an end to United’s massive blocking of “award” seats made available for mileage redemption by its partners in the global Star Alliance, the carrier made a government filing that raised new questions about its filtering policy.

With all the complex issues United and Continental have to resolve before completing their merger, which would create the world’s largest airline, the “award” blocking is hardly a top agenda item. In fact, I’d be surprised if it has come up at all in their negotiations so far…

Educating the flying public

Do you find that air travel has become a complex game of numerous airline rules, growing restrictions, oversold flights and never-ending fees? Do you feel knowledgeable enough and prepared to navigate that labyrinth before, during and even after a trip?

I often compare booking travel to a science — with so many different booking codes, fares, upgrade requirements, penalties and other conditions for changes and cancellations, it’s almost impossible for fliers to keep track of it all. That makes them heavily dependent on airline agents, and it’s well known that you can hear different answers to the same question…

U.S. airlines handle disruptions best

How many times have you been jerked around at an airport and made to wait in several long lines after a flight delay or cancellation forced a change to the rest of your itinerary? Chances are, that happened abroad. For all their faults, U.S. airlines handle irregular operations better than their foreign peers.

I’ve always wondered why airport agents in the United States — whether at check-in counters, gates or even business lounges — can do almost anything a passenger needs, including rebooking, rerouting and reissuing tickets, while agents in other countries are much more specialized, and thus less helpful…

United executive breaks old barriers

Is there an inherent conflict between the desires of loyal customers and a travel company’s interests? For years, executives have been acting as if there is, despite of what they might say in public. One of them, however, has actually shown that what’s good for travelers doesn’t have to be bad for business.

Graham Atkinson has been president of United Airlines’ frequent-flier program, Mileage Plus, for only 16 months, but while some questionable policies remain in place, he has made a big difference for the better. His approach is not simply to please the carrier’s best customers…

Customers gain sway over airlines

If you thought complaints about a policy of your preferred airline would fall on deaf ears, last week proved you wrong. As travel companies struggle to survive the economic crisis, they are increasingly listening to their most loyal customers.

As I reported in this column, United Airlines announced last month that it soon would end advance domestic upgrades, which could be confirmed using electronic certificates top elite travelers get if they fly at least 10,000 miles per quarter. Though United tried to mask that huge loss for its best customers with the promise of automatic “free upgrades” if space in first or business class is still available a couple of days before a flight, the outcry against the new policy was overwhelming…