Expiring Airline Miles: Just One More Way to Penalize the Poor

When I logged in to my Southwest account last week, I was surprised to find my 30,000 accumulated miles were missing. Apparently, they disappeared after not purchasing a Southwest flight in the last two years. (When unemployed, one tends not to waste money on recreational travel.)

I had, however, flown Southwest in November for a wedding, in which I redeemed my Rapid Rewards, but my $10 airline tax did not qualify as account activity.

In a way, redeeming miles for this flight cost me my remaining miles. If I had paid for the trip, I'd still have them.

Instead, I've found one more example of how the poor are increasingly penalized in modern America. Examples of such are endless nowadays, from our punitive welfare system, to municipalities taxing the working class to pay for corporate tax breaks, to police forces targeting cash-strapped immigrants and minorities. (Can't afford to fix your taillight? Wait until you have to pay for the violation too.)

It's no wonder more Americans go bankrupt each year than are diagnosed with cancer, or graduate from college.

You may call it spending beyond our means, but I recognize it for what it is: the disappearance of the Middle Class. Between dwindling wages and increasing costs, the pay of a typical American is lower today than in the 1960s and 70s, and not a single county in the U.S. has a minimum wage that matches the local cost of living.

Our money goes a lot less farther than it did a generation ago, hence the bankruptcies. Elizabeth Warren shouldn't be the only one concerned about this disturbing trend.

Spending beyond our means is not only a necessity in modern America, partly to maintain a standard of living no longer attainable, but it's actually encouraged by greedy creditors, corporations, and now airlines.

When I began flying Southwest in 2003, their reward points did not expire. Sadly, this changed around 2009, when they ditched consumer loyalty in favor of clearing outstanding liability from their balance sheet.

My loyalty to Southwest, which consisted of flying 4-6 times a year for an entire decade, clearly has a shelf life - and it's 24 months.

This loyalty was discarded overnight, along with my miles, and I now register no differently than someone who's never flown at all.

Today, most airlines have squeezed much of the reward out of their reward programs, demanding more miles to qualify for flights, large swaths of blackout dates, and a smaller and smaller window in which to use them.

A quick comparison among the major carriers reveals how quickly miles can expire, after:

3 months of inactivity on Spirit Airlines

6 months of inactivity on Frontier Airlines

18 months of inactivity on United Airlines

18 months of inactivity on Virgin

18 months of inactivity on American Airlines

24 months of inactivity on Southwest

24 months of inactivity on Alaska Airlines, but unlike Southwest, redeeming miles for a free trip counts toward your activity

36 months of inactivity on British Airwaves

36 months of inactivity on Lufthansa

Fortunately, two airlines still prioritize the customer: Delta and JetBlue, whose points never expire.

In another time, the best way to demonstrate your disapproval with a company or service was to take your business elsewhere. But today, with each mega-merger and acquisition, the consumer is left with far fewer choices, and significantly less competition in a so-called capitalist economy.

Consider in less than a generation, 9 major airlines have become only 4:
American/US Airways/America West

In other words, an airline oligopoly.

This is not unlike internet, phone, and cable providers, whose telecommunication cartels engage in such a non-competitive market, they basically collude to keep cable prices steadily rising (2.6 times higher than the cost of living).

When it comes to access, the majority of homes in the U.S. are limited to either a duopoly or monopoly - Cox, Time Warner and Comcast stick to their controlled territories and raise prices instead of competing through expanding service. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston explains this gentleman's agreement in The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use Plain English to Rob You Blind: As long as the monopolies don't poach customers by cutting prices, everything's copacetic.

For big business, that is.

Unfortunately, the consumer was neglected long before, particularly by Congress, who has been instrumental in eroding the public sector in favor of Wall Street approval.

And companies like Southwest have just taken their cue.

I guess I should simply have charged my flight back in November in lieu of mileage redemption. Sure, it may have damaged my credit rating, but at least I'd still have 30,000 miles to use for my next wedding or funeral, right?

I will honestly miss Southwest, mainly because I liked their flexibility. However, in recent years, this too started coming with a price, and the ability to catch an earlier flight remained easy only for those who could afford it.

So I guess what I'm really missing is the Southwest of 10 years ago. The modern Southwest experience is now much the same as in every other failing sector of the economy: as long as you're wealthy, you have lots of options. But if you're poor, or temporarily have tight purse strings, prepare to be penalized.

This is both distressing and de rigueur.

The Middle Class is indeed shrinking. Inequality is quickly rising. Our former land of opportunity is being stratified into Have's and Have Not's, increasingly similar to the U.K. And our once proud, consumer-friendly corporations, like Southwest, now simply expedite the inevitable.

As Southwest says, "You are now free to move around the country." As long as you're still in the Middle Class, I would add. And even those days are numbered.

But don't worry, I'll save you a middle seat on JetBlue.