'Frequent fliers' on front lines of airlines' battles

Andrew Leckey

February 26, 1993|By Andrew Leckey | Andrew Leckey,Tribune Media Services

On a recent segment of the television program "Saturday Night Live," guest host Bill Murray portrayed an intense but amiable fellow simply called The Frequent Flier.

Seated in coach class with his headphones on, this know-it-all kept popping up to inform fellow passengers of urgent matters such as the best music channel to which to listen, which entree was the best deal and where to stash extra bags of peanuts.

The term "frequent flier" has become so common these days that it's hard to believe the concept drew snickers from industry experts when initiated a dozen years ago to lure travelers with awards for carrier loyalty. It was dismissed as a short-lived marketing gimmick.

In 1993, however, frequent-flier programs have been elevated to the front line of defense for airlines trying to battle financial losses.

They've proven effective at stimulating travel. Due to intense government scrutiny of their electronic fare changes, the nation's carriers now consider such programs a safer bet than the fruitless all-out fare wars they've waged for years.

Frequent flier is a bit of a misnomer these days, since the programs are general marketing tools aimed at all travelers. Even if you fly just once a year, the program is a good means of communication about routes, special deals and services.

The perks of membership keep multiplying.

For example, major carriers are currently running a program that lets members earn a free ticket on top of the standard mileage in their program if they travel a total of eight flight segments sometime before April. Previously run just once a year, this promotion's January start seems to indicate it may be run three or four times this year.

"The segment programs indicate how desperate carriers are for business in 1993," said Joseph Brancatelli, executive editor of Frequent Flier Magazine, a monthly publication for the business traveler. "Frequent-flier programs are designed to get people on airlines, sell extra tickets and retain their best customers."

In addition, a greater number of carriers worldwide have joined the frequent-flier boom.

"We've seen about 30 new frequent-flier programs appear outside the United States, as foreign carriers such as SAS and Lufthansa decide to develop their own programs rather than just be partners with U.S. airlines," observed Randy Petersen, editor of Inside Flier, a monthly publication about frequent-flier programs.

There's no one frequent-flier program that's best for you. It depends on where you fly and the type of flying you do, since carrier routes and programs differ. While it's a good idea to be a member of several programs in case you happen to fly one or more carriers, you should focus on one. It is, after all, better to have 50,000 award miles with one airline than 10,000 apiece with five airlines.

Twenty thousand miles is generally required to be awarded a free domestic trip. Delta Air Lines requires 30,000 miles, but it also awards 1,000 for every trip taken, while other domestic carriers offer only 500-mile minimums.

American Airline's 20 million-member AAdvantage program, in Petersen's opinion, is the strongest and one of the best. Continental OnePass and Northwest Worldperks also stand out as having some of the best special travel and upgrade deals, he said. Brancatelli points out that United, American and Northwest award miles expire, while Delta and Continental miles do not.

It's easy to transfer your frequent flier award to others, with the exception of Delta, which requires that the person be an immediate family member.

Never treat your frequent-flier mailings as junk mail, for they're loaded with special limited-time opportunities. Also keep close tabs on your accumulated miles. Consider affinity credit cards that offer award miles only if you pay your balance in full each month, since interest charges on such cards are often high.

An annual subscription to Frequent Flier Magazine costs $84 for 12 issues, and you also receive the Official Airline Guide pocket flight guide. Address is 1775 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10019. An annual subscription to Inside Flier costs $33 for 12 issues. Address is 4715-C Town Center Drive, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80916.

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