Frequent Fliers Squeezed Out

Delta told one frequent flier there were no seats available for his New York-Los Angeles flight -- unless he agreed to pay twice the usual mileage.
Delta told one frequent flier there were no seats available for his New York-Los Angeles flight -- unless he agreed to pay twice the usual mileage. (By Ric Feld -- Associated Press)

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By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Brad Sexton, a marketing executive for Revolution Studios in Santa Monica, Calif., tried to redeem 45,000 miles last week on Delta Air Lines for a first-class ticket from New York to Los Angeles for a trip he planned for this summer. But he was told that there were no available seats on the popular route until Feb. 1, 2007.

Delta, however, gave him alternative: He could have the ticket -- if he cashed in 45,000 more miles, bringing the total to 90,000.

"This is ripping people off," a livid Sexton said yesterday.

Like Sexton, frequent fliers who have not already reserved their seats for a summer trip within the United States may find that it might be a little too late.

That's because the number of free seats that the airlines make available to frequent fliers is expected to decline this summer compared with last summer as the airlines park planes, cut less-profitable domestic routes and fly smaller aircraft in an effort to reduce fuel costs and boost revenue.

That decline has caused the number of seats reserved for frequent fliers to be reduced. Last summer, the airlines filled 80 to 85 percent of their seats with passengers, both paying and those redeeming miles. This summer, the airlines are expected to cut their domestic capacity on average by about 2.6 percent, according to the Air Transport Association, the Washington group that represents the nation's largest airlines. That reduction means that an average 120-seat aircraft that was already nearly sold out last summer would fill up three more seats this summer.

"I've already started hearing complaints from frequent fliers who say that they've been trying to redeem their miles for summer travel and haven't been able to do so," said Tim Winship, publisher of Frequentflier.com.

It's a difficult time to be a loyal customer to an airline. Airlines are trying to find a way to honor their frequent-flier trip requests while keeping seats available for paying customers. And as airlines continue to cut flights, finding ways to honor those requests are becoming even more challenging.

The percentage of seats that remain available to frequent fliers after this year's reductions is hard to identify because airlines do not reveal how many seats they make available on each flight for reward redemption.

US Airways, which is in the process of combining its operations with America West, has cut its capacity by about 14 percent versus last year. Scott Kirby, US Airways' executive vice president of sales and marketing, said summer bookings are already "much better" than last year. That means seats left open for frequent fliers, especially on popular routes and times, could be more difficult to find.

"My recommendation is to book now. There are going to be certain flights that, at peak travel times, are going to [have] a limited number of frequent-flier seats available," Kirby said.

Other airlines have already cut their flights. Last month, American Airlines cut its domestic and international flights by 4 percent compared with February 2005. During the same period, Northwest Airlines cut its domestic flights by 13 percent and its international flights by 11.3 percent.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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