The Brancatelli File



August 12, 1999 -- What I have to report today will shock and surprise you. Come to think of it, since this is about as rare as this week's eclipse of the sun, perhaps you shouldn't look directly at your monitor while you read this.

Astounding as it may sound, I have good news to report about life on the road. And not just one little item, but a veritable tidal wave of glad tidings. So, take a deep, cleansing breath and read on. It could be years before the business-travel news is so good again.

Bowing to competitive pressure, both American and United airlines have lifted the expiration date on miles you accrue in their frequent-flyer plans. Alone among the major airline programs, American AAdvantage and United Mileage Plus imposed expiration dates on your hard-earned miles. But within days of each other in the last week, the nation's two largest carriers have switched to what we can justifiably call the "Delta" model. Like Delta's SkyMiles program, AAdvantage and Mileage Plus now offer miles that last forever--so long as there is some activity in your account in a three-year period.

Even better news is the "activity" required by United and American to keep your miles active. Once every three years, you have to take a paid flight on the airline or one of its partners; make a purchase with the carrier's affinity credit card; or use a program's hotel, car-rental or long-distance partner. You know what? If you can't do one of those things at least once in three years, you should lose your miles.

Best of all, United one-upped American on the matter of miles that expired last year. United will reinstate any Mileage Plus miles you sacrificed in 1998 if you take one international roundtrip or two domestic roundtrips on United by the end of the year.

United last week also announced what is essentially a new class of service on domestic flights: Economy Plus. Depending on the aircraft, between 36 to 89 seats in every domestic coach cabin will be configured with 35 or 36 inches of pitch. That compares favorably to United's cramped 31 inches of legroom in standard coach. The Economy Plus seats will be located in the first six to 11 rows of the coach cabins.

Economy Plus won't have any other perks--there'll still be middle seats and there won't be any additional in-flight services--but the extra legroom will be a blessing. Seats in Economy Plus will be available to anyone paying the full coach fare or to Premier, Premier Executive or 1K members of Mileage Plus.

You may quibble with United's strategy--Why, for instance, didn't United add more first-class seats, which is what frequent travelers really want, what most airlines already have done and which wouldn't have cost United that much more than Economy Plus?--but don't diss the extra pitch. If you've got to pay full fare--or if you can't get that upgrade to first--Economy Plus is a godsend.

And think about something else: This should end, forever, the airlines' bogus claim that "flexibility" is the benefit business travelers receive for our onerously priced full fares. Now that United has created Economy Plus and tacitly admitted that full-fare customers deserve more than discount-priced leisure flyers, we won't have to hear the bizarre canard that we pay six or seven times the cheapest fare just for the right to change our travel plans without penalty.

In last week's Tactical Traveler column, I suggested that the airlines' first offer in the fall fare sale fandango--25 percent off regular tickets and 10 percent off Internet-booked seats--was absurd given the weak demand and the carriers' added capacity. Well, the airlines are clearly feeling the pressure. The last date of sale of both offers has been extended, a sure sign that bookings continue to sag and that better deals are inevitable.

In fact, some better deals are already making their way to travel agents. Virgin Atlantic, for example, has been floating $1,000-off coupons, valid for business-class bookings. SAS is offering travel agents business-class commission overrides as high as 20 percent and many agents are willing to pass that extra commission back to their best customers. And several carriers--including British Airways and Malaysia Airlines--are allowing travel agents to upgrade their customers to the next class of service whenever they pay the full coach or business fare.

This column originally appeared at

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