Airline perk system reaches the end of the runway

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The Independent Online

First, the glamour, joy and excitement of aviation evaporated – now the cherished perks of travelling executives, frequent-flyer points, could face extinction. On some trips from the UK, it now costs more, in taxes, fees and charges, to get a "free" flight than to buy a ticket on the open market. Frequent flyers who use their accumulated miles to fly from London to Amsterdam and back could find the passenger in the next seat with an ordinary ticket has paid £11 less for the same trip.

Business travellers have long grumbled about the diminishing value of free tickets for loyal passengers. That erosion has now reached the stage where mileage can actually have a negative value. Research by i reveals that frequent flyers belonging to the Air France/KLM Flying Blue scheme are charged £110 plus 20,000 miles for a Heathrow-Amsterdam round trip that is available for £99 to normal paying passengers.

A spokeswoman for KLM said that the £110 plus 20,000 miles cost "is available to our frequent travellers throughout the year even at peak time. The £99 offer is a fare which is much more restricted in terms of availability."

Meanwhile, for some short-haul flights from Gatwick, BA Miles can be literally worthless. Members of the British Airways Executive Club seeking a "free" economy flight from Gatwick to Amsterdam and back are being asked to stump up 9,000 BA Miles plus £77.80 in taxes, fees and charges – exactly the same as the cash fare on many dates this winter.

Any member choosing to pay half of the cost in miles, topping up the rest with cash, will spend £45 more than the passenger who buys an ordinary ticket at the lowest price.

One reason for the apparent devaluation of BA Miles is a fall in fares. After two decades as the biggest carrier at the Sussex airport, British Airways ceded its position to easyJet in 2008. The two rivals – which are also the UK's largest airlines – now compete on a wide range of routes. In a move aimed at winning back business from easyJet, BA has just cut its prices for European flights from Gatwick.

A spokesman for British Airways said: "The tickets we make available for Executive Club members to use in return for their miles differ to the lowest published fares in that they are fully flexible, allowing customers to make changes to their bookings free of charge."

KLM (now part of Air France) and British Airways operate sophisticated "yield management" systems aimed at filling planes and maximising earnings. Seats sold publicly at the very lowest fares must typically be bought well in advance, with limited availability on peak departures. The KLM spokeswoman said "The majority of our passengers burn their miles on long haul flights or when they need to fly at peak times".

She rejected the suggestion that Flying Blue members should be warned that cheaper fares might be publicly available: "Frequent travellers receive regular communication from the company and are advised of promotional offers.

"Customers are aware that promotional offers can therefore, at times, be more competitive especially on short-haul trips," she added

Many members of the British Airways Executive Club redeem points for Club World or First Class long-haul flights, because that is where BA Miles are most valuable.

British Airways also owns Airmiles, a retail-reward programme that currently offers completely free flights. Amid much controversy, the scheme switches next month to a new currency, Avios, and starts imposing taxes, fees and charges. Flights to New York, which were previously free, will soon cost over £300 in addition to the points spent.

One contributor to an online forum said "Best bet is to dump the scheme altogether and tell any companies still using it that as an incentive it's about as attractive now as a dead skunk."