Giving Bad Advice on TV

NBC News in Connecticut ran a story on redeeming frequent flyer miles that was notable for how much it got wrong in only 166 words.

    Airline industry expert Darryl Jenkins said tough economic times are making airlines stingy with free seats.

I much like Darryl, but this may be the closest to plausible thing he’s quoted as saying in the article. (It’s plausible that every quote was taken out of context and mangled…)

Airlines aren’t being stingy because of ‘tough economic times’. If anything, the reverse is true. Full planes, usually not a sign of tough times, are making the seats harder to come by. Award redemption at the ‘saver’ level (i.e. capacity controlled awards, after all many airlines allow you to redeem double – or more – the miles to get any seat on the plane) are intended to be given out of inventory that otherwise wouldn’t sell. The seats that are ‘free’ to the passenger are, in theory at least, also close to free to the frequent flyer program to give out. But there aren’t very many of those marginal seats.

The closest Jenkins comes to reality is that tough economic times for the airlines have encouraged them to print a whole bunch of miles over the past several years… double and triple mile promotions intended to bolster travel while carriers went through bankruptcy (United’s sextuple miles in 2003 was truly classic). And now you have “too many miles chasing too few seats” — airlines are giving away plenty of seats, you just have more consumers looking for them.

    He said requesting an upgrade is the easiest way to use frequent flier miles. He said passengers should buy the cheapest coach seats they can and then turn them into business-class or first-class seats.
Except… many airlines won’t let you upgrade the cheapest coach seats. Domestically United, American, and Alaska will. But unless you’re an elite Northwest won’t. And just try it on Continental or Delta…

For transatlantic or transpacific flights only Continental and American will let you upgrade the cheapest fares.. my spending your miles and offering up an additional co-pay.

    He recommends always calling the airline when using frequent flier miles and not using the Web site. He said you can negotiate with the ticket agents.

    He also said complaining can get you everywhere. Airlines sometimes give seats to valued passengers who complain.

Agreed that it’s worth calling and not just relying on airline websites, since the search technology isn’t across-the-board great with many carrier websites and very few allow you to search frequent flyer availability for partner airlines without calling.

But the advice to call has nothing to do with the ability to complain to a (in many cases outsourced) agent in order to get what you want. There are very few customers with the juice to convince an airline’s yield management to open up seats for redemption as a result of complaining. Don’t try it at home, kids.

Gee, I don’t know why that piece bothered me so much, but I feel better having gotten it off my chest. Thanks! (And sorry, Darryl.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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