Frequent fliers on American Airlines who haven't been paying attention to their monthly statements lately may get a bit of a surprise come January.
That's because the airline will erase any miles earned in 1993 at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31. Happy New Year.
For now, members of American Airlines' frequent-flier program are the only ones who have to scramble to save their miles before New Year's Day - and even they have several options. But more and more, the major airlines are making their frequent fliers travel free sooner rather than later (see box), using expiration dates on both miles and mileage coupons.
Since American started its program of erasing three-year-old frequent-flier miles back in 1989, United, Northwest, and Delta have followed suit.
Bill Dreslin, a spokesman for American, says they did it mostly to avoid a potential costly liability. "You could conceivably get into a situation where everyone decides to cash in at once, and there would be no way to manage it."
But after years of no limitations, frequent-flier miles have proved hard to rein in.
United, for example, has two classifications for its miles. Those earned before July 1988 were earned on an old plan, and if they aren't transferred to United's new plan (free of charge), they expire on Dec. 17, 1997.
Miles earned since July 1988 are on the new plan, and all miles earned through 1995 will expire on Dec. 31, 1998. All miles either earned or transferred from a pre-1988 account after 1995 will expire three years later.
Other airlines have a similarly complex deadlines. If you keep flying with Delta, miles don't expire. If you stop, they will expire three years after your last flight. With United, American, and Delta, you can exchange miles for. a coupon before the expiration date, which will extend them another year. Northwest doesn't offer a coupon, but you've still got two years.
If you're an American AAdvantages member who still has 1993 mileage, you've got five days to take action. Getting a coupon is the most popular option. That's what Mr. Dreslin is doing with his 8,000 miles from 1993. The coupon extends them until the end of 1997. Then he can book a flight a year in advance, giving him a second year.
If keen to get out of town fast, you can get a domestic ticket with 20,000 miles and $100 or go to Europe with 30,000 and $200. But you have to go before March 31, 1997.
Other options: rental cars for 12,000 miles, hotel stays for 10,000, or donating miles to charity. Sorry, not tax deductible.
Right now, except for the coupon and the donation plan, these options are only available to American AAdvantage members. But, then again, they're the only ones who have to do something about their miles.
Here's what will happen to unused frequent flier miles earned with the nation's seven largest airlines.
United Airlines. Miles expire three years after they are earned. Miles earned through 1995 expire on Dec. 31, 1998. An exception: Miles earned prior to July 1988 have a separate policy.
American Airlines. Miles expire three years after earned. Miles earned in 1993 will expire on Dec. 31, 1996.
Delta Air Lines. Miles don't expire if you buy a Delta flight once every three years. Otherwise, miles expire three years after earned. Delta miles earned through May 1, 1995 expire in May 1, 1998.
Northwest Airlines. Miles expire three years after earned. Miles earned through 1995 expire Dec. 31, 1998.
USAir. No expiration.
Continental. No expiration.
TWA. No expiration.