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Frequent Flyer Programs

Frequent flyer programs allow passengers to earn certain travel benefits based on the number of miles that they accrue during the course of their travel on a particular airline or group of airlines.  Typical awards include a free ticket, food and beverage perks, or a free upgrade from economy seating to higher seating class. Some airlines also offer "elite" programs which provide check-in and boarding priorities, and "affinity" credit cards which earn mileage credits when you use them for purchases.

Frequent Flyer Program Membership

To benefit from a frequent flyer program, you must become a member of an airline’s program.  You can typically sign up for a frequent flyer program directly on an airline’s website at no cost.  There is no limit to the number of programs you may join. When choosing among the frequent flyer programs available, here are a few things for you to consider:

  • Whether the airline serves the cities you would like to travel to, and whether it has partnerships or agreements with other airlines;
     
  • Whether the airline has agreements with hotel and car rental companies you would like to use;
     
  • How quickly (and in what ways) you earn frequent flyer rewards points;
     
  • How many rewards points are needed for the awards you are interested in;
     
  • Whether the airline offers free tickets for yourself, "companion tickets," or upgrades;
     
  • Deadlines for using accumulated credits (in some programs miles expire); and
     
  • Whether awards are transferable or for the member’s use only.

Each airline’s frequent flyer program includes certain conditions and limitations. You may want to carefully read promotional materials, the contract associated with the rewards program, and the airline’s customer service plan before becoming a member. You also may want to pay close attention to notices that you receive in the mail after you enroll; these notices sometimes describe changes in the airline’s frequent flyer program.

Airline Changes to Frequent Flyer Programs

Airlines have wide discretion to change the terms of their frequent flyer programs, but are required to disclose their frequent flyer program rules in their customer service plan and must adhere to any promises made in their customer service plan. 

Where can I find frequent flyer program terms and conditions?

  • Airlines are required to disclose their frequent flyer program rules in their customer service plan and are required to adhere to any promises made in their customer service plan.  An airline’s customer service plan can be found on the airline’s website.

If I travel using frequent flyer rewards points, is an airline required to offer me the same availability and benefits as a passenger that pays with a credit card, debit card, or cash?

  • No. Availability of space on flights for frequent flyers is often limited (similar to deeply discounted air fares). This could include advance reservation requirements, blackout periods (generally during peak travel times, including holidays), and limits on the number of frequent flyer seats on many flights (to as few as zero on some flights). To find out about limitations or conditions of an airline’s frequent flyer program, you may want to carefully review the contract associated with the rewards program.

Filing a Complaint

While the U.S. Department of Transportation does not have rules governing airline frequent flyer programs, DOT has the authority to investigate unfair or deceptive practices in air transportation, including complaints from consumers regarding airlines’ frequent flyer programs.  If you are unsatisfied with the way a frequent flyer program is administered, changes to a frequent flyer program’s terms and conditions, or the basic terms of the agreement, you can submit a complaint directly with the airline.  If the airline is not able to resolve the matter to your satisfaction, you can also file a complaint with the Department of Transportation. Complaints and comments related to those perceived practices may be submitted to the Aviation Consumer Protection Division's on-line complaint form.  Complaints are reviewed to determine whether an airline is in compliance with federal law enforced by the Department protecting the rights of air travel consumers.  Complaints are also used to track trends or spot areas of concern that serve as the basis for rulemaking, legislation, and research.  DOT’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings may pursue enforcement action against an airline that engages in an unfair and deceptive practice relating to a frequent flyer program.  

Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2018
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