Reaping the bonuses for frequent flying

``Fly now -- fly free later'' has become the new unspoken slogan of some 10 million frequent flyers throughout the world. Bonuses for flying a particular airline -- called ``Frequent Flight Bonuses'' on TWA -- have become the airline industry's most effective sales gimmick since the jumbo jet. So widespread has been this plan that it is now used, with various names, by most airlines to encourage carrier loyalty. Thus, the fact that it is under attack by the Internal Revenue Service and some employers is disconcerting to both the airlines and to frequent travelers.

With the IRS hinting broadly that it may soon start counting free trips as income and with some companies attempting to use the frequent-flyer credits earned by employees on businesss trips toward future business trips, the airlines are tightening access to records. For example, TWA will not answer telephone queries about specific bonus credits. Only written inquiries from individual members themselves will elicit such information.

The whole system began in 1981, when American Airlines introduced the first frequent-flyer program, called ``AAdvantage.'' It proved immediately successful, and TWA and United soon came up with similar plans. Within a few years, more than 25 other airlines followed suit, with some adding hotel and rental car discount features. Almost all plans allow points to be used to upgrade tickets.

Each plan has its own rules, and wise travelers shop around to find the plan with the highest rewards and the fewest restrictions. Many airlines now require that tickets be used only by the club member or his or her family. This is an attempt to break the black market in bonus tickets, which has been openly functioning in major cities.

In most cases, you can join a plan by simply filling out a form at the check-in counter or by writing to the airline and asking for membership. You will be given an identification number, which in some instances is printed on stick-on labels you simply attach to your tickets when you use them. The plans vary. Some require forms to be filled out each time mileage is credited to you, as you use the tickets.

Many frequent flyers join several airline clubs. And some carriers, such as TWA, Eastern, and Qantas, allow the mileage to be used interchangeably. Use of the bonus travel is mostly prohibited during peak travel periods such as Christmas. A few airlines now request a fee for membership in their clubs.

It has been estimated that the bonus plans cost the airlines around $12 per member but bring in more than $500 million in added revenue, since frequent flyers often occupy seats that might not otherwise be used.

The economy-class TWA-Qantas tickets that we used for an around-the-world flight were the bonus for 100,000 miles of travel. If my friend had waited until he earned 175,000 miles, the tickets could have been first-class.

A key problem we encountered: Since the tickets were free, travel agents could expect only a nominal commission (in the case of TWA, $20) and therefore tended to be understandably reluctant to waste valuable time booking us. Of course, this is not such a problem if the frequent flyer plans to book expensive tours and luxury hotels within the framework of the itinerary. We solved the problem by booking through a travel-agent friend.

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