The last time US Airways filed for bankruptcy, the airline's nearly 4.5 million frequent fliers didn't rush to cash in their points. This time, some of those elite travelers are concerned and are trying to figure out how to ensure they don't lose their miles.
The reason: Chances of US Airways' survival are bleaker than they were two years ago during the first bankruptcy. If the airline folds, it may not be as easy as it was in the past for another carrier to honor travelers' frequent-flier points.
While US Airways works toward a reorganization under court protection, it will continue to honor its frequent-flier miles. During the first bankruptcy, US Airways frequent fliers were able to use their points as usual for trips and upgrades. United Airlines, which also is in bankruptcy, continues to honor award requests of its frequent fliers.
Still, Karrye Y. Braxton of Washington, who has about 51,000 points, fears she will lose her miles if she doesn't burn them off by the end of the year.
"I better be quick. I guess I know what airline I'll be taking home to Los Angeles for Christmas," she said.
US Airways spokesman David Castelveter said customers were not rushing to use up their points.
In an e-mail to US Airways frequent fliers on Sunday, chief executive Bruce R. Lakefield tried to assure members that the bankruptcy filing would have no impact on their ability to earn or redeem frequent-flier miles.
"I want you to know that this announcement has no impact on your dividend miles account and the many benefits you receive as a member. While our restructuring efforts focus on achieving a competitive cost structure, there will be no direct impact on our ability to professionally serve you," Lakefield wrote.
During the first bankruptcy, US Airways frequent fliers weren't as worried as they are now because they assumed another airline, if need be, would step in and acquire US Airways and honor its miles, in the same way that American did with Trans World Airways and Delta Air Lines did with Pan Am.
But now the U.S. airline industry is in its worst shape in a generation, and few carriers can afford to take on additional financial burdens.
"Everybody is in trouble; nobody can afford them," Braxton said.
Doug Stone of Darnestown, a top-level US Airways frequent flier with 500,000 points, said he and some of his colleagues already are running into difficulty redeeming their miles. He speculated that fewer seats are available for frequent-flier awards because a growing number of travelers are seeking to use their points.
Stone said a colleague in Pittsburgh tried to use his points on a first-class seat to London next year but was told there were no first-class seats available and that he had to fly coach on US Airways partner United Airlines.
Stone expressed frustration that he might not be able to use his miles even for trips planned far in advance. "It looks like I and many others like me will get stuck having to eat them," he said.
Those who can't find frequent-flier tickets on US Airways can try United, Austrian, Singapore, Lufthansa or any of the 15 carriers that make up the Star Alliance global airline program.
US Airways posts information on its Web site about options for converting frequent-flier miles to other uses. On the carrier's Web site or at Milepoint.com, frequent fliers can spend their miles on magazine subscriptions. A year-long subscription to one of 46 magazines such as Newsweek, TV Guide, Time and Essence cost between 400 to 1,700 points, depending on the publication.
US Airways frequent fliers can also donate their points -- 5,000 minimum -- to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The donations help defray air transportation costs for the children's charity that grants wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses.
Another option, said Tim Winship of Frequentflier.com, is for travelers to use their miles to book a much-needed vacation for friends or family members.
There's a less attractive alternative for those who worry that US Airways may not exist in the future and think it is best to preserve at least some of their frequent-flier miles. Through US Airways or on the Points.com Web site, the carrier's miles can be converted into frequent-flier points on American, Hawaiian or Alaska airlines. The points can also be used to buy items on eBay or at Starbucks Coffee.
But the downside is that about 75 percent of the value of the US Airways points are eliminated. For example, 5,000 US Airways miles convert to 290 American miles. For 400 US Airways frequent-flier points, a traveler earns just 155 eBay points.
Please join Keith L. Alexander and his guest, B. Ben Baldanza, head of marketing for US Airways, for an online chat about the status of the airline from 11 a.m. to noon Wednesday. Log on to www.washingtonpost.com.