MILE HOUNDS

Joining the Elite

Unless you fly at least 25,000 actual miles a year, forget about reaping the benefits of elite frequent-flier status: perks like priority check-in, upgrades, bonus miles, preboarding and lounge access. If you do fly often and/or far, read on for info on upcoming changes.

* United frequent fliers who last year came within 10,000 miles or 10 segments of a particular elite status can keep trying until March 31 for a $25 fee. Qualifying segments will include flights taken on US Airways between Jan. 1 and March 31. Miles earned during the extended period count toward getting status in both 2003 and 2004. But you must sign up for the extension period and pay the fee by Feb. 16 at www.united.com.

* American customers who flew enough miles to get elite status last year, but not in 2003, can now buy their way into the club if they pony up cash by March 31. Gold status costs $395, platinum $595. Those payments ensure elite status through Feb. 24, 2004. Details: www.aa.com.

* Delta isn't letting its frequent fliers buy their way in. As of Jan. 1, however, the criteria have changed for earning elite status for the coming year. Instead of miles and flight segments, miles and ticket prices are what count -- so passengers who pay more for a ticket will get more credit. Details: www.delta.com/skymilechanges.

UPRIGHT AND LOCKED

Capt. Gunslinger

The law allowing U.S. airline pilots to carry guns passed in November. But don't expect armed captains at the controls until spring, says Heather Rosenker, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration.

In addition to training pilots who volunteer to pack heat, the TSA has policy issues and problems to work out -- such as who will give the training, how long should it be, what kind of weapons will be allowed, who will pay for them, how pilots on international flights will carry guns into a foreign country, and how the weapons will be secured before, during and after a flight.

TSA head James Loy, who along with the airline industry and a task force of law enforcement officials opposed arming pilots, said before legislation passed that if pilots were armed, they should be required to store their weapons in lockboxes. Cockpits, he said, might have to be refitted to create a secure storage bin. The issue was not addressed in the legislation. That leaves the TSA to work out those and many other details.

John Mazor, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association -- which along with the National Rifle Association pushed for the new law -- suggested lockboxes shouldn't be necessary. "The airport has all kinds of law enforcement officers walking around with firearms," he said. A pilot who passes training will be sworn in as a brand new brand of enforcer: a Federal Flight Deck Officer.

As for the issue of carrying guns overseas, Mazor said he assumes pilots can be covered under international agreements for FBI agents and air marshals.

TRAVEL TICKER

Montreal Tourism has put together packages and special events for Valentine's and Presidents' days. Details: www.montrealhighlights.com . . . AAA has withdrawn its coveted five-diamond rating from three properties: Buhl Mansion in Sharon, Pa.; the Inn at National Hall in Westport, Conn.; and the New York Palace in New York City.

BARGAIN OF THE WEEK

Ski-Daddle

American Airlines is reducing round-trip fares to a slew of popular Western ski destinations in North America, but you must book by New Year's Eve. A sampling: $260 from Reagan National to Albuquerque; $317 to Vail, Colo.; $331 to Jackson Hole, Wyo.; $332 to Vancouver. Book by midnight; travel weekdays, Jan. 3-Feb. 13. Taxes extra; three-night minimum stay required in some instances. You must purchase online at www.aa.com.

Reporting: Cindy Loose, Andrea Sachs.

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