Can this trip be saved? No miles for my flight — can you retrieve them for me?

By | April 25th, 2011

Here’s a type of case that crosses my desk often, and to which I almost always say “no.” But should I?

Oscar La Torre recently took two flights — one from Miami to Sao Paolo on TAM and the other on from Lima to Piura on LAN Airlines. He’s entitled to miles on OnePass for the TAM flight and through his AAdvantage account for LAN, he says. Both airlines are denying him.

Can I save his miles?

Before I answer, a disclaimer: I am, as many of you know, a frequent flier program skeptic. I believe loyalty programs benefit airlines more than they do travelers, and they also divide us into “haves” and “have-nots” on the plane, which makes this egalitarian, idealistic crusader bristle. But enough about me.

And another disclaimer: La Torre offered no details of his transaction in his query. Did he input his frequent flier number when he booked? Did his ticket specifically qualify for miles? He doesn’t say.

La Torre’s problem is incredibly common. That’s because not all tickets qualify for miles, which is a little-known fact among inexperienced air travelers. Also, airlines have so-called “code-sharing” partnerships with other airlines that incorrectly imply you’ll get miles for flying on someone else’s plane. (Such an arrangement makes no sense in any other industry, but again, I digress.)

Our mileage collector has been after all four airlines for his credit, to no avail. “I have called several times to American Advantage,” he says. “They say this ticket does not qualify for miles and the airlines keep blaming each other [for it].”

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As for OnePass, it’s demanding to see copies of his boarding passes.

(Didn’t I tell you to keep you boarding passes?)

So why do I hesitate about this one?

Well, one thing is clear: If La Torre flew on TAM and LAN, and if his tickets qualified for frequent flier miles, then he should be able to get them. And if this were a clear case of his miles being denied unjustly, then it might make my choice a little easier.

But American has already told him his flights don’t qualify, so I don’t think I’ll have much luck persuading them to change their mind. As for OnePass, the asking-for-a-boarding-pass maneuver is a known delay tactic. Airlines are quick to offer miles, but if they could find a reason to not give them to you, they would.

I also hesitate because I think mileage programs are a racket, and I don’t want to encourage my readers to participate in programs that will hurt them.

How is this hurting a passenger like La Torre?

Well, who’s to say he didn’t choose the flight because of the miles, maybe opting for a more expensive flight or a less convenient routing, just so he could collect miles? While that may help TAM or American, it really does him no good — particularly if he gets little or no benefit from going out of his way to fly on these carriers.

However, the airline is a clear winner. Not only did it deny him miles but he probably paid it a higher fare.

Oh, I don’t know. Am I letting my bias influence my decision to mediate cases? Without a doubt.

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La Torre’s case would be a questionable one, even if I adored loyalty programs. You can’t assume your ticket will qualify for miles anymore, let alone for partnership or codeshare credit. That, and my anti-frequent flier program bias, makes me inclined to turn this case down.

And so I turn to you, dear readers, for a reality check. What would you do?

(Photo: kaw anet/Flickr Creative Commons)

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