Few people know that Congressman Alan Grayson clerked for both Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, respectively the most right-wing and the most progressive justices on the current Supreme Court. We first started to get to know Grayson when he began a primary campaign against Charlie Stuart, a Chamber of Commerce type good ole boy conservative Democrat for the Orlando congressional seat held by Republican Rik Keller. Blue America endorsed Grayson, who was running as an anti-war candidate, but he dropped out well before the primary and prepared to run in 2008 instead. He was a top Blue America candidate in that winning race, again running on his peace platform and on his record of holding war profiteers accountable, and to this day he's the candidate our donors have given the most to. We're backing him again this year and encouraging him to run for higher office in the future as well.
We're raised well into the six figured for Grayson. In Republican circles donors get all sorts of special favors for that-- primary special interest legislation, earmarks in bills (although Republicans stopped calling it that a few years ago) and even the ability to write their own pet projects into federal bills. Democrats who raise that kind of money get favors too-- like sleep-overs in the Lincoln bedroom or, to be completely honest, the same type of shady. slimy business the Republicans are up to. But that isn't what we get from Grayson. I can call him up for travel advise. Grayson's been to every country in the world-- and Antarctica. When Roland and I went to Mali, we didn't ask him where to stay in Bamako, the capital city, or Timbuktu, the biggest tourist draw-- you can find those on dozens of online travel sites-- but Grayson was able to tell us where to stay in off the beaten track towns like Bangiagara and Sangha.
Grayson, a Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is the most well-traveled Member of Congress. He serves on the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa and on the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. He's racked up something like ten million frequent flyer miles. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that he's paid attention to some of the shenanigans perpetrated by the airlines who systematically mislead consumers-- Delta is the worst-- and misrepresent their offerings to the public. This year, Grayson introduced legislation to regulate the programs and keep the airlines from cheating the flying public. A crafty spokesperson for the airline industry trade organization claims that "Carriers are completely transparent regarding loyalty programs both on their websites and in direct communication with their customers." Do you know any travelers who would agree?
In the 33 years since American Airlines (AAL) launched the mileage craze with its AAdvantage program, frequent-flyer miles have become a critical revenue source for U.S. carriers. The airlines sell billions of dollars worth of miles each year to banks, retailers, and other marketers that use them to entice customers. Today, more miles are earned from credit cards and other loyalty programs than from actual flying. Millions of people who rarely fly are keenly attuned to boosting their mileage balances.
The top frustration of frequent-flyer program members is needing more miles than they expected for an award, followed by sudden rule changes, according to a survey of 1,600 miles collectors earlier this year by MileCards.com, a credit card comparison site.
...Grayson maintains that airline competition kept the programs relatively unchanged for mileage collectors throughout the 1980s and ’90s, with most award travel seats offered at starting rates of 25,000 miles. In recent years, especially as airlines have gone bankrupt and restructured, the carriers’ push for profitability has made the programs far less generous to consumers than they once were.
Irate members of Delta Air Lines’ (DAL) SkyMiles program began calling those miles “SkyPesos” several years ago, owing to difficult redemptions and their perceived lack of value. Delta has announced several changes for 2015, including offering more seats at lower mileage levels, to try to make SkyMiles more competitive with the programs at United Airlines (UAL) and American.
Next year, Delta and United will begin considering annual spending in their rewards calculation, not just the distances that travelers cover, so customers who spend more money will get more miles. Awards for most international business- and first-class seats on partners of the Big Three U.S. carriers have also soared within the past year. Those changes and others in recent years have caused many miles collectors to rethink the value of trying to amass miles for free airline travel.
Regardless of how much consumer irritation airline miles generate, the Transportation Department probably lacks a “leverage point” to delve too deeply into new regulations for the programs, says Tim Winship, editor of FrequentFlier.com. But he says the department will be able to push airlines to offer more advance notice of program changes that are negative for consumers.
Grayson says many of the recent program changes have been made with little or no warning, which often requires travelers to spend more miles for an award trip. American made such a change on June 1. “Announcing a program change today that takes effect today sticks in the craw of most consumers, and rightfully so,” Winship says. Eric Fraser, a miles collector and Phoenix attorney who specializes in federal regulatory issues, says the department is likely to be most interested in whether airlines properly notify program members of pending changes. “This is an area where the DOT sniffing around could just have an immediate benefit, even if they don’t start to write rules,” Fraser says.
Ideally, Grayson says, the airlines should be forced to give at least one year’s notice of major program changes and to offer at least one seat on every flight available at the lowest mileage level. “If you’re going to have a program like this at all, it’s got to be an honest program,” he says. “Every human being comes with a built-in cheat detector. They know when they’re being cheated; they know when they’re being deceived.”