5 Ways to Get Kicked Out of a Frequent Flyer Program

Carl Unger, December 17, 2015
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    Frequent flyer programs are anything but simple. The arcane rules, blackout dates, expiring miles, credit card programs, and numerous other complicated details make your annual taxes look like a walk in the park by comparison. One aspect of these programs that is pretty straightforward, however, is that once you join it's pretty difficult to get kicked out.

    Make no mistake: Inattentive program members can suffer lost miles and lost rewards, but actual expulsion is rare and limited to just a few scenarios. That said, it's not unheard of, and it's worth knowing what you should look out for. Here are five ways you could get kicked out of your frequent flyer program.

    Be a Huge Pain in the Neck

    Frequent flyers, especially elites, are typically an airline's best customers. These people fly regularly and give the airline a ton of their (or their company's) money, ergo they expect and often receive special service and extra attention.

    There is such a thing as expecting too much, though, and airlines will cut ties with customers who make unreasonable demands or abuse their privileged status. Being elite doesn't make you king, and if an airline feels it's being bled dry by incessant (and dubious) complaints and demands for compensation, it can and will remove you from its program.

    The infamous case of a Northwest WorldPerks member getting the boot after NWA merged with Delta illustrates this point perfectly. This particular customer filed 24 complaints over a six-month period, often for seemingly benign issues like delayed (as in minutes, not days) baggage, while also booking himself on full flights so he could collect generous bumping compensation. Delta kicked him out, he fought it, and the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the decision.

    Moral of the story? Airlines will go to great lengths to retain their elite customers, but they do have limits. Don't push them.

    RELATED: Make Your Complaint Work for You

    Obvious Cheating

    Guess what? A cello is not a person! And as world-famous musician Lynn Harrell learned a few years back, that means A) cellos cannot earn miles and B) disregarding point A and signing your cello up for a frequent flyer membership can get you kicked out of the program. That's exactly what happened to Mr. Harrell, who lost roughly 500,000 miles and was banned from Delta's program when his account was audited and found to be fraudulent.

    Another good example is hidden-city ticketing. If you aren't familiar, this is the practice of buying a multi-leg ticket that connects in your actual intended destination. These connecting itineraries can be cheaper than booking the direct flight you want, and so you just hop off at your desired destination and go on your merry way.

    Well, this is very much against every airlines' contract of carriage, and if you're caught doing it, especially repeatedly, airlines can target your miles or even your membership as punishment. I stress "can" because actual examples of this are fuzzy, but let's just say you engage in this practice at your own peril. There's an entire culture devoted to finding and exploiting loopholes in frequent flyer programs, but outright cheating, and making a habit of it, will get your carrier's attention sooner than later.

    Pretty Much Any Reason At All

    Here is some choice verbiage from Delta's SkyMiles rules and conditions:

    Delta reserves the right to terminate your membership in the SkyMiles program at any time if you violate the SkyMiles Membership Guide and Program Rules, any term or condition of Delta's contract of carriage, Delta's fare rules, or any other Delta rule and regulation that apply to your travel.

    And from JetBlue, emphasis mine:

    Fraud, misrepresentation, abuse, improper conduct (as determined by JetBlue in its sole discretion), or violation of applicable rules may result in ... the forfeiture of all Points and/or Award Travel, forfeiture of any accumulated Points in a TrueBlue Member's Account, deduction of TrueBlue Points, as well as cancellation of the Account and proscription of the Member's future participation in TrueBlue.

    You don't need to be a lawyer (I'm not) to understand what these paragraphs mean, but I'll spell it out: When you sign up for a frequent flyer program (or even buy an airline ticket) you're giving the airline most of the power in any dispute that may arise down the road.

    In the case of frequent flyer programs, airlines reserve the right to levy penalties at their discretion for any activity that violates their terms. And while expulsion is likely reserved for big-time fraud, "lesser" crimes of having multiple accounts and transferring miles outside the airline's approved transfer system are subject to any penalty the airline deems appropriate. This is what we call the Roger Goodell Theory of Justice.

    RELATED: 10 Ways the Airlines Try to Scam You

    Selling Miles

    Unlike the Big Brother-y "we can do whatever we want" provisions above, this one is pretty simple. Miles are not your property and, as such, they are not yours to sell. This is spelled out pretty clearly in your program's rules and conditions, and you can be sure the retribution will be swift and severe if your carrier catches you profiting off what is technically their property.

    To be clear, selling miles is generally not illegal, so you can't get in trouble with the feds if you decide to go that route. But in addition to canceling award tickets and expelling you from the program, airlines can sue for damages and bleed you dry with legal fees. Basically: Don't do it.

    Inactivity

    Inactivity is the bane of many casual program members. Each airline has its own rules, but in most cases miles expire after 18 months of inactivity.

    "Activity" includes earning flight miles or redeeming an award flight, earning or redeeming miles with a program partner (such as an affiliated rental car company), buying or transferring miles, and in some cases using an affiliated credit card.

    But inactivity can also lead to your membership being terminated. Again, each airline's policy is different, but here's the language United uses, for example:

    Any member who fails at any time to engage in account activity for a period of eighteen (18) consecutive months is subject to termination of such member's membership and/or forfeiture of all accrued mileage as of the last day of the 18th month.

    Chances are that if you've been completely inactive for 18 months, you won't miss your membership (or be missed by the program). But it's a good reminder that members should keep tabs on their status and stay up to date on the program policies to ensure their miles—and membership—aren't blundered away.

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    Read the original story: 5 Ways to Get Kicked Out of a Frequent Flyer Program by Carl Unger, who is a contributor to SmarterTravel.

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