archivelogo
 The Brancatelli File

joe MILES AND POINTS
AREN'T EVERYTHING


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

July 2, 1998 -- Maybe all you need to know about Randy Petersen's life on the road is that he has flown to Honolulu and he's not staying at the beach.

In a town where virtually every one of the guest rooms is on or within shouting distance of a white, sandy beach and the Pacific Ocean, Petersen has found himself a room at the edge of the airport and under a highway viaduct.

"I'm my own travel manager and I make the decisions," he says over a sandwich and a pineapple smoothie at the Halekulani, the serene and elegant beachfront hotel in Waikiki where I am staying. "The hotel I booked is costing me $80 a night and I'm getting my frequent-stay points. What's the rate here? Three hundred a night? And you're not even getting miles."

Of course, miles and points is what it's all about for Petersen, the nation's most frequently quoted expert on frequent-travel plans. He's got his finger in so many frequent-flyer pies--Inside Flyer, Webflyer.com, mileage management for both business travelers and corporations, mileage insurance, consulting--that he has trouble remembering all the ventures.

Petersen's ubiquity and his sense of fair play has made him a powerful force in the frequent-travel marketing game. Airlines seek his opinion and court his approval before announcing program changes. Individual travelers appeal to him when they feel they've been screwed by a program's intricacies. Journalists seek his insight whenever they attempt to cover the field.

All this has made Petersen, a 45-year-old former clothing executive, a wealthy man. And to his credit, Petersen has never claimed to be anything other than a mileage man. He's restricted his businesses to areas related to frequent-travel marketing and scrupulously avoided talking about the day-to-day grind of business travel.

Lately, however, Petersen has begun to realize that frequent-travel plans don't exist in a vacuum. As he races around to the world--Petersen estimates he spends about 200 days a year on the road and flies upwards of 300,000 actual miles--he's become disillusioned with the life of a business traveler.

"I wonder if the airlines know what they're doing to us out there," Petersen says ruefully. "Every day it gets worse and worse and I don't think the travel industry cares."

Notoriously easy to please with a genuinely unassuming nature--he happily rides in the back of the bus on about 75 percent of his flights and has extraordinarily simple taste in clothes, food and hotels--Petersen nevertheless finds his life on the road to be an increasingly burdensome task.

"I've lowered my expectations and I still see airlines and hotels that couldn't care less," he says. "People at the front desk and gate agents don't seem to feel their job is to have that one-on-one relationship with customers."

As he dawdles over his sandwich and sniffs at a ginger-scented lei around his neck, Petersen pours out a litany of abuses, indignities and small insults. One representative story: Petersen's struggle to get home to Colorado several years ago after learning about an illness in his family.

"I'm trying to get home because of this family thing, but the plane is delayed because the airline is waiting on a captain. So, naturally, we take off really, really late. I miss my connecting flight. Now I'm scrambling.

"I need to get home," Petersen says again for emphasis. "But this airline doesn't have another flight tonight. They want to send me to a hotel. Even after I tell them I have to get home for a family emergency, they don't want to do anything. I'm shuttling from gate to gate and from employee to employee and nobody wants to help me get home."

Finally, Petersen says, after wasting two hours and going through nine employees--"I kept count," he says--he locates a supervisor willing to help. She endorses his ticket to another airline and makes him a reservation on their next flight out.

"And you know what I really hate? The supervisor tells me, 'Gee, I don't know why those other people didn't do this. They could have done it for you.' Well, hell, if you don't know why all those other people didn't help me and you're the supervisor, how the hell do I know?"

Petersen shrugs his shoulders when I ask him if he likes the service offered on any airline or hotel these days. "I used to like the old Delta," he says. "Now, they're all the same. They don't do what they promise and they don't care that they don't do what they promise."

But don't business travelers have to take the blame for some of the bad service we receive, I ask. Petersen looks at me blankly.

"Well," I say, "haven't we told airlines and hotels that all we care about are miles and points? I mean, I hear business travelers complain about service all the time, but when I ask them why they don't change airlines or hotels, they always say they can't afford to lose their miles or their elite status."

Petersen nods. "We've definitely become victims of our own greediness," he says. "But I think points and miles are indistinguishable from service. Part of good service is giving a good loyalty plan. Just because we're getting miles doesn't mean we should have to give up everything else."

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.