Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Chuck Schumer's Confused Message on Frequent-Flier Programs

Sen. Chuck ("Do Not Get Caught Between This Guy and a TV Camera") Schumer has been spending his time on a problem that really doesn't need much solving -- people who fly so seldom that their frequent-flier miles expire -- while paying no apparent attention to one that does, the stalled-in-committee Free Speech Protection Act of 2009, of which he is a co-sponsor.

The New York Democrat went to some trouble to notify the news media of an announcement he plans -- for Sunday! -- in which he will call for the Transportation Department to investigate "complaints by consumers" (that would be, some letters to his office) that various frequent-flier programs are robbing them of accrued miles because the program rules are too confusing.

Dunno, I'm pretty easily confused when it comes to "program rules," but I can tell you without looking it up how many miles I have in each of my various frequent-flier accounts, and how many I need in two of them to qualify for a level of elite status next year.

The problem Schumer seems so eager to investigate is for those people who rack up, say,11,357 miles over many years and find that, under varying accounting rules airlines adopted in recent years to try to sort out the rats nests that are mileage accounts, X-number of those miles expire yearly if the account is inactive.

As problems go, this isn't a biggie -- not for frequent fliers.

According to the AP, "Schumer says he suspects consumers are actually paying for frequent flier programs through air fare and fees. If so, he said rules are needed to protect consumers. He's asking the Department of Transportation to review the complaints."

Right, get the DOT on the case. That will work.

It seems the media have been hooked with a holiday-story stunt:

"As the holiday travel season approaches, we cannot let airlines and credit card companies continue to fly off with hard-earned frequent flier miles," Schumer said in an announcement scheduled for Sunday. "When a consumer accumulates valuable frequent flier miles, they should not have to constantly worry that they are going to expire with little or no notification from the airline."

There are plenty of concerns about frequent-flier programs, mostly centered on Weimar Republic-style hyperinflation and its effect on true value of an earned mile. Also, all of us are a little uneasy about these silent quasi-mergers the airlines are pulling off through increasing cooperation among alliances, including schemes to merge mileage programs and dilute benefits.

Instead, Schumer seems concerned about the piddling accounts that airlines snuff out because of lack of activity. Yes, I was sorry when my Aunt Franny found out those 9,238 miles in her account were zapped because the last time she flew was on that trip to Orlando in 1997.

In fact, airlines have made it very easy to go online and figure out which awards are available and at what price in miles.

The news media, which are always suckers for these holiday-themed alerts, need to do a better job of explaining how frequent-flier programs actually work. A baloney detector, as always, is a useful tool.

Schumer, meanwhile, might better spend his time trying to pry loose that Free Speech Protection Act (S.449)he co-sponsored from the Judiciary Committee. That's the critically important bill that would prevent enforcement of those spurious foreign libel judgments against Americans on allegations that would never stand up in a U.S. court.

I've written twice to his office on that issue -- which threatens free speech in the U.S. and affects not just writers and journalists (including bloggers), but also academics, policy- makers, travel reviewers, scientists publishing research and even casual users of social media.

I've had not a word in reply from Schumer. The Free Speech Protection Act of 2009, alas, has no cheap holiday angle. And writing about it requires more than reacting to a press release.


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