Changes may ground some frequent fliers 

Stricter rules are in store for some frequent flier programs, but as long as you use an airline-partnered credit card, eat out at a participating restaurant or buy a magazine subscription at least once every 18 months, those precious miles will remain yours to keep.

United Air Lines, US Airways and Delta Air Lines all recently announced that they’ve shortened the period of time in which fliers have to use air miles and keep their accounts active. United and US Airways reduced the amount in half from three years to 18 months, while Delta cut it down from three years to two.

Still, each airline has said that the occasional traveler shouldn’t feel pressured tofly somewhere every 18 months, as there are easier ways to keep the credits.

"It’s really, really easy to keep your account active," United spokeswoman Robin Urbansky said.

Urbansky said the new rules for United, which has 48 million people in its Mileage Plus program, would go into effect on Dec. 31. By then, if there had been no activity on an account since July 1, 2006, those miles would expire.

The three-year time frame for banking miles was considered a financial liability, and made things confusing when balancing the books, Urbanksy said.

Urbansky said that after the plan goes into effect, it will be easier for the airline’s most frequent users to claim "awards seats," because there will be less competition for those seats, which are saved especially for those cashing in frequent flier miles.

US Airways spokesman Morgan Durrant said the new rules for his airline went into effect Jan. 31. He also noted that making purchases at selected partner businesses or redeeming miles for a newspaper or magazine subscription were easy ways to hold on to miles without flying.

"This won’t affect our most frequent fliers," Durrant said.

Still, if 18 months do go by and a relatively infrequent flier wants those miles back, US Airways is imposing a flat $50 and a per-mile charge to have them reinstated, Durrant said.

Randy Petersen, publisher of consumer publication Inside Flyer magazine, agreed that not much has changed in the various frequent flier programs, although he did take issue with what he thought was inadequate notice from US Airways and Delta regarding the change.

"If you’re not flying once every 18 months, are you really a frequent flier?" Petersen said.

Burlingame resident Meetesh Shah is one of the many United customers — Urbanksy declined to say how many exactly — who have a cache of miles stocked up but don’t fly often.

Shah said he continually racks up a small amount of points with grocery store purchases, estimating he has approximately 500 points total in his account.

"I’m sure people who use their miles often aren’t affected, and an infrequent traveler assumes that they don’t travel enough to earn enough miles to be useful anyway," Shah said.

tramroop@examiner.com

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