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Several airline carriers relax frequent flier rules



Published: Sun, January 13, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Under the usual rules, many business travelers who have cut back sharply on flying because of the weak economy or the terrorist attacks would lose their memberships in the "elite," "premier" and "gold" clubs that airlines reserve for the most frequent of frequent fliers. But some of the major airlines have suspended those rules.

United, American and America West have automatically extended such memberships through February 2003 for travelers who have collected at least 25,000 miles. United offered an additional 5,000 bonus miles to be applied to 2003-2004 memberships.

Other airlines, including Northwest and Delta, have tried to help their best customers retain their status by offering double miles on future trips.

Typically, airlines require travelers to fly thousands of miles or reach a minimum number of flights before qualifying for these clubs, which give them perks such as free tickets, early boardings, free upgrades and airport club memberships.

The airlines say they are easing the requirements because of the Sept. 11 attacks. But even before then, the weakening economy had carriers struggling to keep their best customers -- many of whom are often their highest-paying passengers as well -- in the air.

Security check-ins: Now the carriers are introducing a new perk for the elite traveler: faster security check-in. The airlines are worried that longer waits at the airports would be another reason for frequent fliers to stay away. So American, United, Delta, Northwest and America West have established or are testing separate security lines that are often much shorter than the regular lines.

But don't look for separate lines at US Airways or Continental. Continental executives said they would rather focus on reducing the waits for all customers by increasing the number of checkpoints and airline personnel. The airline doubled to 10 the number of security screening stations in Houston. And in Cleveland, Continental eliminated a gate and replaced it with two additional checkpoints. Gordon Bethune, Continental's chairman and chief executive, said the airline's goal was to get its passengers through security checkpoints in less than 20 minutes. "I don't need an elite check-in line when I can get all customers through in 10 minutes," he said.

At US Airways, an executive said creating separate security lines for a small group of travelers may not be cost-effective.




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