TRAVEL EXPLAINED

Hey, Partner, Where Are My Miles?

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By Michael Shapiro
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 13, 2006

Last December, retired auditor David Monahan of Falls Church flew round trip from New York to Beijing on Air China, a frequent-flier partner of United Airlines. Thanks to this partnership, Monahan earned mileage credit in United's Mileage Plus program for the flight to Beijing. But he never received credit for the return flight. So he sent his boarding pass to United's customer service desk, something he'd done before when the miles weren't posted to his account.

This time, however, United sent back a form letter stating that Monahan needed to show his original ticket to get the mileage credit. Monahan no longer had the ticket and lost out on almost 5,000 points.

"Their attitude was 'That's your tough luck,' " said Monahan, 68. "I'm disgusted with them. Airlines are already making it difficult to claim seats using frequent-flier miles. Now they're making it difficult to receive mileage credit."

It's not just travelers flying United's partner airlines who are missing miles. Members of partnerships anchored by Delta and other airlines also have complained that miles flown on partners are not credited. At best, these mileage points take time and effort to win back; at worst, they're never credited because travelers can't spare the time (or don't take the time) to follow up, or don't notice that the miles are missing.

Frequent-flier guru Randy Petersen, who runs the Web site WebFlyer.com, estimates that about 7 percent of partner flights are not credited properly. "That's tens or hundreds of millions of missing mileage points.," he stated. Petersen said airlines don't keep statistics about missing credit but said his numbers are backed up by reports from airline service centers. Airline executives are "supposed to be marketing wunderkinds and database experts," Petersen said. "It's in their best interest to build better data-capture systems."

Though many travelers aren't aware of airline partnerships, dozens of carriers around the globe have joined forces to offer mileage credit for flying with their partners. Fly on Air Canada and you can get points in United's Mileage Plus program. Or fly Virgin Atlantic and have miles posted to your Delta SkyMiles account. In theory, it's a great way to bolster your frequent-flier balances and gain elite status; in practice, according to travelers and frequent-flier experts, it's sometimes difficult to get the miles.

A recent query posted on FlyerTalk.com, an online message board devoted to frequent-flier topics, yielded more than a dozen travelers who complained that they'd flown a partner airline and did not receive mileage credit in their airline loyalty program. One traveler, who goes by the online name of Boraxo and chose not to reveal his real name, said he flew to Vancouver on Air Canada but didn't receive the miles he was due in his United Mileage Plus account. Though the flights were booked on United.com and the frequent-flier account numbers were printed on his Air Canada boarding passes, the miles were not credited. "I then went through a song and dance with UA regarding the missing miles: United demanded the e-ticket serial number, which I never received," he wrote in a FlyerTalk.com forum. But after sending in the original Air Canada boarding cards and the e-mail itinerary, Boraxo "finally" received his "measly 1,600 miles."

A United spokeswoman, Robin Urbanski, said this isn't a widespread problem and that "close to 95 percent of our customers automatically receive Mileage Plus credit when they fly United or one of our Star Alliance partners." This, however, means that more than one in 20 trips is improperly credited, a figure Petersen said is way too high for an industry seeking to improve its reputation for service.

Problems can occur, Urbanski said, when the mileage number isn't entered into the reservation or if the number doesn't exactly match the name on the account. When "retro-credit" is due, she said the airline works to "quickly" credit the traveler's account.

Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst for Forrester Research, said frequent-flier credit problems can result from different airlines using incompatible computer reservation systems. Harteveldt said these problems more typically occur when returning from an international destination than departing from the United States. Harteveldt said he has often had trouble getting credit himself, adding that recently his United Mileage Plus account hadn't been credited for a BMI flight.

Some travelers have become so disgruntled by the inability to get partner-airline credit that they've booked on other airlines. Mark Mercer, a Summit County, Colo., software engineer, said he's "booked away from Delta" because it's so hard to get his Northwest frequent-flier number in its system. He's found that when he logs into Delta's Web site to book a ticket, it automatically inserts his Delta SkyMiles number, even if he wants credit in a partner airline's program.

Some major airline Web sites, including Delta's and American Airlines', do not provide tools to enter the frequent-flier numbers of partners such as Northwest or Continental. Delta spokeswoman Gina Laughlin said the airline is working on improving Delta.com to allow travelers to enter mileage accounts for partner airlines. United.com, on the other hand, lets you choose from any of its 22 partners, and Continental.com has a choice of its 15 partners.

Two major online booking sites, Travelocity.com and Orbitz.com, don't allow travelers to enter partner airlines' frequent-flier numbers. Orbitz spokeswoman Jeanenne Diefendorf acknowledged that for some partner airlines, it's impossible to enter one's frequent-flier number when booking at Orbitz. In those cases, she said, "we encourage travelers to give their frequent-flier numbers to the agent at airport check-in." Expedia.com offers the option of entering frequent-flier numbers on 39 different airlines.

Some travelers assume that the airlines' failure to post mileage credit is intentional, but Harteveldt and other airline experts disagree. "It's absolutely not intentional," Harteveldt said. "It's a customer service burden on the airlines." Tim Winship of FrequentFlier.com, an advice site for frequent fliers, concurs: "It's cheaper [for the airlines] to get it right the first time." Winship notes that the problem extends to non-airline partners such as rental car companies and vendors like airline parking lots that promise mileage credit but sometimes don't deliver.

Harteveldt notes that for short flights, some travelers don't bother trying to get the miles they've earned if an airline fails to credit them, but he said he always follows up: He keeps his boarding passes and flight documents and sends them to customer service departments if his mileage accounts aren't credited within a few weeks.

"It's worth it and can make a difference in your elite status," Harteveldt said. "You're paying for these miles -- you've earned them -- and you should take steps to get what is fairly yours." Just a few hundred miles, he notes, can put one over the top to gain elite status, such as Premier in United's Mileage Plus program.

Gary Leff, author of the blog "View from the Wing" ( http://blogs.flyertalk.com/blogs/viewwing ), agrees. He keeps a spreadsheet to track the miles he's earned and follows up when he doesn't receive proper credit. "It takes a lot of effort, but the people who play the game are the ones who win. Others don't play and they end up not having the miles to compete for a seat," he said. "You have to be incredibly dogged, but for me it's just a ritual."

Epilogue

After The Post contacted United Airlines about Monahan's return trip from Beijing, the airline credited Monahan for the missing 4,787 mileage points. Though the flight is about 6,840 miles, Air China offers United Mileage Plus members 70 percent of miles flown on its cheapest economy fares.

Michael Shapiro is the author of "A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration" (Travelers' Tales, 2004) and "Internet Travel Planner" (Globe Pequot, 2002).


© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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