A Paradox of Revenue-Based Mileage-Earning

If airlines increasingly award points as a multiple of the price paid for your ticket, why do they call those points ‘miles’?

And if elite status at Delta and United are based on minimum revenue as a proxy for your value to the airline, why have distance flown requirements at all?

Reader Andrew runs into another rather vexing paradox of revenue-based frequent flyer programs: the infant fare.

On domestic flights a lap infant under 2 is free. Internationally most airlines charge 10% of the prevailing fare. Different airlines handle that different for award tickets, some charging additional miles and others charging 10% of full fare.

But if you’re going to pay a fare for the infant, who then is issued a ticket, why shouldn’t they earn miles?

I have flown on a number of flights with my infant daughter internationally, for which Delta charges 10% of the adult fare. She receives a ticket in her own name with a Delta ticket number.

Delta ticket plus fare paid should equal 5 miles per dollar spent, right? Not according to Delta agents. Though they can’t point to anything on the Delta website that says this, they keep saying that infant tickets aren’t eligible for mileage accrual. I get that she shouldn’t get any MQMs, but 5 miles per dollar is 5 miles per dollar whether the fare is $1 or $1,000. Further, on an upcoming flight the infant fare (10% of the adult fare) still came to $116, yet Delta says that still isn’t eligible for earning miles. The Skymiles terms and conditions state (in part):

“For Delta-marketed (flight numbers that include the “DL” airline code) or Delta-ticketed (featuring a ticket number beginning with “006”) flights, SkyMiles members will earn miles based on ticket price, at the rate of 5 miles per U.S. Dollar (USD) spent, including base fare and carrier-imposed surcharges, but excluding government-imposed taxes and fees.”

She’s got a ticket number beginning with 006 and paid a base fare. Further, the exclusions state:

“Mileage credit will not be given for the following: (…) Infants (under age two) traveling without paying an applicable fare. Mileage will be credited to the accounts of infants traveling on a ticket purchased at the applicable fare.”

She paid an applicable fare so the exclusion doesn’t apply.

While the mileage numbers aren’t huge, they’ll add up to a few thousand by the time she’s 2 and needs her own seat. I’ve submitted a complaint through delta.com and if that is not successful then I plan on submitting a complaint with the DOT. If frequent flier programs are now just refund programs then I want my refund.

I suspect there will be a disagreement as to the meaning of ‘applicable fare’ – Andrew has paid the fare that applies to the infant, but Delta may say ‘applicable’ encompasses ‘eligible’ and they have determined infant fares not to be. Or Delta could just repeat what they told the Supreme Court:

You could also conceive of it as basically being a premium that’s offered by the company to reward your loyalty, but you’ve already gotten full performance.

In other words, they owe you nothing.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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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  1. To the author: just pay full fare and get your precious points. It seems you are taking a one sided position and whining. Pay 10% of a ticket with no points. Wow. You can rectify yourself and pay full fare. Isn’t it more honest to question why a possibly screaming and disruptive youngster gets any discount. That is the greater paradox .

  2. Mike, you’re a dick and I hope you don’t have kids (you probably aren’t able). If a kid doesn’t take up a seat, why should I pay a full fare? Do me a favor jerkoff, don’t procreate, as we’re at full a-hole quota.

    I’ll never understand you types who read Gary just to effing moan at him. I am sure there are plenty of travel blogs who argue for the airlines. Go there and praise them and leave this site alone.

  3. Revenue based miles programs are stupid. The value for most people of revenue based miles is so low, it will not encourage them to fly a certain airline. And they won’t. The airlines will pay a price for going in that direction.

    @Mike. Pay full price for everything. It is the right thing to do. What do they say. Oh year, a fool and his money are easily parted.

    The thing is, I think the airlines are thinking the same thing as Mike. They underestimate that most people are not fools.

  4. Gary – why don’t you write more about the agency cost involved with revenue-based airfare? How long will it be until major employers say “your miles belong to me because it’s a rebate on company-paid travel” especially when employees are now incentivized to wait till the last minute to book so they can earn more miles?

  5. Um – was gonna comment that this post is more about flying with kids and should be re-titled so it isn’t as click-baity, but WOW, second comment made that secondary.

    Dude – I don’t even know where to start. So basically people without kids who disagree with you – or Gary (who also doesn’t have kids?) are that way “probably bc we can’t have them”. And we are dicks too ?

    Man – even for a blog, that is some ignorant “anonymous tough-guy” talk. You must seriously hate your life – get help before you mess up your OWN kids.

  6. I do not consider this a post about flying with kids and more about the logic of a revenue-based program. That’s what’s meaningful to me here, rather than the how-to (or how not to as the case may be).

  7. @AnonCHI something along the lines of:

    Though the rebate for spend argument isn’t one I’d pursue because it remains tough to manage which miles are from which activity in an account comingling points from a variety of sources, and once you say the miles don’t belong to the traveler you are reducing their effective (non-taxed) compensation at a time when unemployment is low.. these programs usually don’t save employers much money, as the US federal government found, people don’t use their miles for work trips if they even bother to collect them at all.

  8. I bought a seat for my 1.1-year-old to travel international. The child got full mileage credit. I’m not poor or rich, and a lap infant on a 10-hour trans-Pacific flight is insanity to begin with.

    But onto the logic of revenue-based miles/points.

    At some point in the future, general inflation will give you more miles from airline ticket fares than the miles flown. That probably won’t be for a decade or two, and by then, mileage program rules will likely have changed. Unless you are going to be retired from flying by then, I can wait out for that tipping point and just fly my 50k/yr to keep my gold. By then, it’ll probably be lifetime gold.

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