Airlines put pinch on frequent fliers

If American Airlines ever needed a poster boy for customer loyalty, Edip Borluca could have fit the bill.

For years, the 35-year-old San Carlos chef stuck to the carrier that once employed his mother, racking up frequent-flier miles with each vacation. But this fall, Borluca and other frequent fliers may find their loyalty unrewarded as financially strapped airlines begin to chip away at their mileage-earning programs.

Recently, American Airlines announced new and increased fees for those who want to upgrade economy seats using frequent-flier miles.  Beginning Oct. 1, passengers traveling within North America and Central America will have to shell out $50 in addition to 15,000 earned miles. Transcontinental passengers will see their one-way fees jump from $300 to $350.

“The reality is that today, with extraordinarily high fuel costs, the disparity between discount and premium fares is too great to be offset by miles alone,” American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith said. “The addition of a co-pay allows members to continue to use their miles to upgrade to the next class of service even if they purchase discount tickets.”

The new copayment is one of a long list of fees and charges U.S. airlines have recently passed to fliers to make up for rising fuel costs. JP Morgan analysts estimated recently that U.S. airlines will lose $7 billion this year due to gas prices. New fees for once-complimentary perks such as food, seat requests, headphones and transporting pets are being implemented by many airlines.

American Airlines is not alone in restructuring its frequent-flier program. Delta Airlines also announced it was introducing a three-tiered system that will require up to 60,000 miles for a last-minute domestic coach seat. On Nov. 1, Alaska Airlines will also raise the miles it takes to book an economy flight from 20,000 to 25,000 miles.

“The members see this for what it is — an effort by the airlines to generate revenue,” said Henry Hardeveldt, an aviation analyst with San Francisco’s Forrester Research.

FareCompare.com Chief Executive Rich Seany said the changes come at a time when frequent fliers are already frustrated that the number of seats available for awards tickets are being diminished by capacity cuts. His advice to travelers is simple: Book now.

“Use them now,” he said. “It’s like Russia in the early ’90s when currency was being devalued.”

tbarak@sfexaminer.com

By the numbers

A look at airlines’ frequent-flier programs

American Airlines

$50 Cost to upgrade a flight in North and Central America

$350 Cost to upgrade a flight in parts of South America, Europe and Asia

$5 Booking fee for all awards tickets

Delta Air Lines

60,000 Miles required to purchase a last-minute domestic seat

19% Flights from SFO that are on either American or Delta airlines

Alaska Airlines

25,000 Miles required to purchase a domestic flight

Sources: TSA, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Alaska Airlines

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