Travel: The currency of air miles is about to become debased

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The Independent Culture
AIR MILES aren't worth the paper they're printed on. I can say that with some confidence, because the small print of the vouchers says "cash value 0.001p per mile". So the 50-mile coupon issued by British Airways is worth just one-20th of a penny, and you can't get a quality piece of watermarked paper for that sort of money these days.

The notional cash value is, of course, just a legal convenience designed to nullify any attempt to claim money from the BA offshoot that runs the frequent-flyer programme. The effective value of each air mile varies wildly, depending on which route you choose to redeem them - anything between a quarter of a penny per air mile, if you are reckless enough to use them for a trip to Australia, to more than 50 pence each if you choose the right short-haul flight. But anyone who collects air miles should know that the currency has effectively been debased.

The culprit, as I reported in the news pages yesterday, is the "passenger service charge" that, from next Friday, will be added to the price of air miles tickets - even though it is in no sense a new tax. The airlines are simply charging us twice for something we already pay for once.

Callers to Air Miles this week are being given the impression that Air Miles is merely acting as a tax collector: "It's a government charge that we have to pass on," I was told by one reservations agent; "Our hands are completely tied." Another said, "It's not us charging it, it's actually the airports, hence we've had to add it to the tickets."

Neither the Government, nor individual airports, have increased their fees to airlines, but Air Miles staff are pretending they have. The company's group marketing manager, Judith Thorne, said staff would be re-briefed to make clear the nature of the charge.

However the profit-boosting move is described, though, the consequences for people who have been diligently saving frequent-flyer points are dismal. Five years ago you simply swapped air miles for flights, with no cash changing hands. Then Kenneth Clarke introduced air passenger duty - a real tax - which means you pay pounds 10 for each "free" flight within Europe.

The new move means that an air miles flight from A to B will now cost a total of pounds 27.80, when A is Aberdeen and B is Belfast. That seems a lot to pay for a "free" flight lasting about an hour. It also serves to make the company's slogan look rather silly: "When you collect air miles, leisure time becomes free time in more ways than one."

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