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Mileage deals spur runs for elite status

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If you ever wanted elite status on an airline, now’s your chance.

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If you ever wanted elite status on an airline, now’s your chance. And if you’re worried about losing your top-tier status because you’ve reduced business travel, there’s a clever way to keep all those perks — provided you’ve got some time to fly.

The plunge in business travel has triggered a wealth of special frequent-flier program deals, from triple mileage on some routes to double elite-qualifying miles on all travel and huge bonuses for international trips.

Play the promotions right and one trip can get you enough miles for a free domestic coach ticket plus elite status for a year.

There’s simply no better perk in commercial air travel today than having top-tier status with a major carrier. Elite-level travelers enjoy free upgrades; premium seating; no baggage fees; special check-in, security and boarding lines; early boarding privileges; and priority on standby lists.

And elite fliers aren’t the only ones who gain from these deals. Consumers who have seen the value of their miles decline as airlines raised the price of awards are regaining some buying power — at least for the moment.

Airlines say they are making more seats available for award redemptions, and some travel awards have even been put on sale. For example, tickets to Europe regularly priced at 55,000 miles were recently offered by UAL Corp.’s United Airlines for 40,000 miles.

“I can’t remember a time like this,” said Randy Petersen, president of Frequent Flyer Services, a Colorado Springs, Colo., publisher. “Right now is one of the richest periods I’ve ever seen in 23 years of following these programs.”

The promotions, most of which run until June 15, are so tempting and the fares are so cheap that some travelers are making “mileage runs” just to qualify and fill their mileage accounts.

Jeff Schley found a way to vault to United’s elite 1K status — which requires that travelers log 100,000 miles annually — with just one week of flying across the globe.

Mr. Schley moved to Saudi Arabia last year to teach at an American school and did not have elite flier status. He left the Middle East on April 2 and flew to Washington, D.C., then on to Los Angeles, Sydney, San Francisco, Sydney, Los Angeles, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington and finally, back to Saudi Arabia. Over seven days, he spent 98 hours aboard airplanes, flying 52,000 miles. With United’s double elite-qualifying miles offer, that earned him 1K status.

Cost: $2,900. Rarely having to fly coach again: Priceless.

“Living overseas, travel is really a chore if you don’t have status,” said Mr. Schley, who got tips on his mileage escapades from, a forum for road warriors run by Mr. Petersen.

Since he’ll earn bonus miles as an elite flier and his mileage run yielded an additional six coupons for an automatic upgrade good on any long-haul flight, Mr. Schley figures he’ll be able to re-qualify easily and will be able to upgrade on most any flight in the future while he lives abroad.

The flying itself — entirely in coach — was tedious. He wore compression socks to minimize the risk of blood clots forming in his legs, and used an eye shade, travel pillow and noise-canceling headset. An Australian customs agent who saw him entering the country twice in a few days quizzed him carefully on why he was staying only seven hours each time. And he grew tired of watching “Frost/Nixon” and “Marley & Me” over and over.

“I never would have done this without the double elite qualifying miles,” he said.

AMR Corp.’s American Airlines triggered the war over elite-qualifying miles in March, when it launched a double elite-qualifying-miles offer. Most U.S. airlines quickly matched the bonus.

Elite-qualifying miles, or EQMs in the parlance of road warriors, are different from regular frequent-flier miles, which can be earned any number of ways, from credit-card purchases to restaurant dining as well as travel. EQMs are earned mostly by air travel alone, and are used by airlines to determine who gets granted special status in frequent-flier programs. Typically you need 25,000 EQMs each year for the lowest level of status, which grants a traveler early boarding and special security lines and possible upgrades. Usually 100,000 EQMs qualify travelers for top-tier status and better perks.

Airlines say the bonus offers are designed to keep customers from switching to discount airlines during the recession. In past downturns, higher-fare carriers have lost market share to low-cost carriers.

“We don’t want our best customers right now choosing another airline,” said Jeff Robertson, Delta Air Lines’ vice president of loyalty programs.

The EQM bonuses have proven very popular. While American declined to discuss its elite-miles promotion, United says more than 50% of its elite-level frequent fliers have signed up for its mileage offer; Delta says one-third of its elite members have registered for its bonus promotion.

Both airlines say customers are worried about re-qualifying since corporations have aggressively cut back on travel. Indeed, despite the offers, United projects it will have fewer elite-level members next year because of corporate travel cutbacks.

“This will certainly counteract some of the natural decline we’re seeing, but it’s not going to fully account for it,” said Graham Atkinson, president of United’s Mileage Plus frequent-flier program.

Both Delta and United have put some frequent-flier awards on sale and seen consumers, anxious to use miles to travel these days instead of cash, snap them up.

United saw a 40% increase in redemption activity when it cut the price of its trans-Atlantic “saver” award, the lowest-priced coach offering, Mr. Atkinson says. When Delta cut the price in miles on some of its frequent-flier awards, redemption activity jumped 25% the first day the new rates were loaded into computer systems — before they were even advertised.

Mr. Robertson said Delta plans big incentives on its credit-card deal with American Express Co. to help convince customers of Northwest, which Delta acquired, to switch credit cards. And airlines say more specials are likely on specific routes because of intense competition or just slow bookings, particularly when summer buying slows down.

Smart mileage-runners take advantage of special situations. Fares to Australia, for example, are particularly cheap right now because incumbent airlines are battling a new start-up, V Australia, part of the Virgin Blue Group Ltd. Likewise, when JetBlue Airways Corp. began flying nonstop from Boston to Los Angeles, rivals struck back with a triple-mileage offer on the same route. Mr. Schley took advantage of both.

For a one-day run, the cheap prices and triple-mile offer of the Boston-Los Angeles route is hard to beat. For $250 or so round-trip, you can earn more than 15,000 miles and more than 10,000 elite-qualifying miles. That can be a big boost to someone looking to top up a mileage account for award tickets or worried about re-qualifying for elite status.

That’s exactly what spurred Douglas Hardy of Detroit to buy a ticket to Singapore, with only enough time there for him to shower. Mr. Hardy, chairman of a real-estate company, isn’t traveling for business as much as he used to, so he’s worried about losing his Platinum Elite status on Northwest Airlines Corp., which has gotten him upgraded to first class on every flight he has been on since he reached the platinum level.

“I like the perks Platinum offers — there’s real value to it. But this year I’ll be significantly short,” he said.

To avoid losing all that, Mr. Hardy paid $1,800 for a round-trip ticket from Detroit to Tokyo and on to Singapore in a couple of weeks. He’ll spend less than five hours on the ground in Singapore.

Mr. Hardy bought a coach ticket that he was able to upgrade using certificates he earned from Northwest, and flying in first class means he’ll get triple elite-qualifying miles. For nearly 40 hours of flying in three days, he’ll travel 19,436 miles. The triple elite-qualifying miles offer will give him more than 58,000 miles toward Northwest’s platinum threshold of 75,000 EQMs. With other business and pleasure trips, he expects to re-qualify for platinum status through March 2011.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “I think it’ll be fun.”

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