Every school child knows that what goes up must come down. But airline travelers will find, beginning tomorrow, that some things that go down eventually have to go up.
Major airlines tomorrow begin enforcing tougher rules for frequent flier programs that require domestic travelers to earn up to 25 percent more bonus miles on the same airline in order to get a free ticket for an extra flight.
USAir, United, Continental, American and Delta airlines, among others, all will demand that travelers earn 25,000 frequent flier miles before earning a free ticket for travel in the lower 48 states and Canada.
All require 20,000 miles now.
No one likes what is, in a sense, a price increase. But the airlines point out that they have not raised the number of miles needed for a free ticket since the programs began in the early 1980s -- and even the upcoming boosts don't make up for cuts that went into effect during the industry price wars that have dominated the late 1980s and early 1990s.
USAir used to require 30,000 miles of flying before awarding a customer a free ticket good for travel anywhere in the lower 48 states and Canada, but cut that minimum to 20,000 miles after its 1988 merger with Piedmont Airlines, spokeswoman Andrea Butler said.
The airline also dropped its requirements for a free trans-Atlantic ticket by 10,000 miles in 1992.
"I would challenge you to find anything that costs the same as it did in 1981," said UAL Corp. spokesman Joe Hopkins, who said the company's United Air Lines unit has required 20,000 miles for a free ticket since beginning its program that year.
Randy Petersen, publisher of the Colorado-based industry newsletter Inside Flyer, said there has been little public outcry since the changes were announced up to eight months ago (depending on the airline) because frequent flier programs are still a big bonus for loyal customers.
"Even at 25,000 miles it's still a great deal," he said. "These days up to 40 percent of your miles can come from nonflying sources," he added, referring to deals that let customers earn miles by using credit cards, rental cars or hotels affiliated with frequent flier plans.
The changes take effect at different times for different airlines: USAir's changes take effect tomorrow, United's and American's on Feb. 1.
In each airline's case, customers who have enough miles to qualify for an award under the old guidelines can lock their prizes in by acting quickly.
If USAir customers mail a request by today, Ms. Butler said, they can get a certificate certifying they are entitled to an award.
That certificate is good for a year before it must be exchanged for a ticket, and the ticket can be used any time during the following year. Therefore, some customers can avoid the full bite of the new rules until 1997.
"If you're not exactly sure where you want to go, don't worry about it," Ms. Butler said. "Just work to get your certificate in hand." She said the requests must be postmarked by today.
American customers can lock in their awards by following the same procedure by Jan. 31, and United customers also have until Jan. 31. Delta customers must claim their certificates by April 30, before rule changes take effect May 1.
While critics of the frequent flier programs point out that their effectiveness in promoting brand loyalty has proved limited, airlines still swear by the plans as one of the few tools they have to combat the fickleness of price-conscious consumers.
United gave away 1.6 million awards in 1993, including free tickets and upgrades, Mr. Hopkins said.