By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 1/5/2010 10:22:01 AM ET 2010-01-05T15:22:01
travel troubleshooter

Q: I've been saving my Delta Air Lines frequent flier miles for many, many years to take my wife on a 20th anniversary trip this year. I received all of my statements by regular mail. A few months ago, I asked the airline for a PIN number so I could look at my account online, and when I logged in, I was shocked to see my balance at zero miles. I had — or at least I thought I had — 101,000 miles.

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It turns out that even though I used to have points with no expiration date, Delta had made changes to its program and because of inactivity on my account my points were deleted late last year.

A representative also told me that since Delta had gone "green" I hadn't received any account statements, which would have informed me of my expiration dates. We asked the airline to reinstate our miles, since we have stayed at Delta partner hotels in the last year, but it refused.

I feel like our dream anniversary has been shattered and I am devastated since I can't afford to buy plane tickets. I would be very, very grateful if you would consider contacting Delta on my behalf. To quote an old movie, "Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope!"
Kenneth Miller, Albuquerque, N.M.

A: Delta should have told you about your expiring miles. It was wrong to deny your request. It was also wrong to underestimate the Force. (Sorry, I just had to throw in another "Star Wars" line. But who am I kidding?)

Like most other airline loyalty programs, Delta's SkyMiles program allows the airline to change its terms any time for any reason. If that sounds overly broad, if not a little unfair, that's because it probably is. You can review the terms online for yourself and decide.

You made some assumptions about your frequent flier program that were incorrect. You believed the terms under which you began collecting loyalty points wouldn't change — that your miles would last forever — even though Delta's terms gave the airline a license to rewrite the rules.

I can't blame you for thinking Delta would keep its word. It's like buying a knife set with a lifetime warranty, only to discover a few years later that the guarantee has been cut to two years. If you earned non-expiring miles, then common sense tells you the miles should never expire. But common sense doesn't apply to this situation.

Here are a few steps you could have taken to improve your chances of keeping your miles. First, you phoned Delta, but I would have written instead. A quick e-mail to the airline is far more effective than a call, for a number of reasons that regular readers of this column already know.

In reviewing this case with Delta, you probably could have done a couple of things to keep your hard-earned miles, like giving the airline a current e-mail address and handing over your SkyMiles number to the hotels where you stayed. Had you done those two things, you probably would still have your 101,000 miles.

I contacted Delta on your behalf. I also forwarded receipts from your hotel stays to prove that technically, you had some activity on your account, even though you never received mileage credit for it. As a gesture of goodwill, and as an exception, Delta returned your miles.

© 2010 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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