Looking back, Jill Constable's mistake wasn't flying to Australia on American Airlines and Qantas. The connections from Dallas to Sydney, Ayers Rock, and Cairns made sense, from a scheduling point of view.
It was the reason she chose the so-called "codeshare" flights.
"I wanted the miles," she confesses.
Constable assumed that she'd receive credit for all of her flights to and from Down Under, plus the domestic flights booked through American. (Codesharing, for the uninitiated, is the fundamentally dishonest act of selling another airline's flight as if it was your own, but I'm not going down that rabbit hole today.)
Here's a secret she learned after her trip: Airlines don't want you to have those miles just as badly. Worse, you don't find out about the mile-free flights until it's too late.
"I only received miles on short trips within Australia," she says. "None for the long flights to and from Dallas. It was so disappointing."
This is what happens when the government gives an airline a license to lie and to stop competing (I'm trying to stay out of the rabbit hole, honestly, but I may have a touch of apophasis in my rhetoric). Once a carrier can misrepresent the flight, it can misrepresent other terms until you're left with nothing.
Sometimes, literally nothing.
I'll never forget the case of a former journalism school classmate who booked a long-haul codeshare flight from North America to Asia, the kind that last forever and a day, and promise to deposit a gazillion miles in your loyalty program account. After several weeks, the credit didn't show up, and she began to get nervous. She contacted me, I contacted the airline, and the airline said, "Surely, you must be kidding! You don't get miles for flying on another airline."
If you take a minute to think about it, this debate is ridiculous.
Every airline seat should come with miles because, after all, you're sitting in the seat and clocking real miles. It seems counter-intuitive for some flights to earn double miles unless someone is actually flying the same route twice, and it makes absolutely no sense for others not to earn miles.
But you know me -- I'm an unapologetic loyalty program critic. So if airlines removed frequent flier miles from the equation, I would throw a big party. But if they're going to award miles, they should do it in an evenhanded and fair way. No codesharing tricks, and certainly not as an "oh-by-the-way" notation at the end of a marathon flight.
That's what regulators would call an unfair and deceptive practice, and P.S. -- there's a law against that.
It's a law that other airlines apparently aren't aware of either, according to Evan Ng. He and his partner recently flew another codeshare flight from Chicago to Bangkok via Zurich. The airlines, in order of appearance, were Swiss, Lufthansa and Thai. As a United Airlines frequent flier, Ng wanted to make sure he'd get credit for these flights. (Confused yet? Oh, just go with it.)
"We researched the fare codes for this routing to make sure we would earn elite-qualifying miles for our trip," he says.
"After we returned, we noticed that the Zurich-to-Bangkok miles had not posted," he says. "We contacted United MileagePlus and sent them our boarding pass and e-tickets. Unfortunately, we were told that Thai Airways was reporting to them that the fare code was 'W,' which would not qualify for miles."
I have a pretty strict policy about chasing down readers' missing miles. With so much pain in the travel world, I really can't bring myself to help travelers play a loyalty game that's rigged to favor the industry.
I didn't mediate either of these cases, but I did the next best thing: I decided to write about the insanity. If you're an aviation insider or a travel agent, you probably already know that some codeshare tickets don't have the ability to earn miles. But the difference between you and everyone else is that you've come to accept this absurdity of the airline industry.
None of us should have to, actually. Fly a mile, earn a mile. If we can't agree on that simple principle, then isn't it really time for the government to put an end to this nonsense?
If you said "yes," then congratulations -- you're thinking clearly and rationally about travel. If you think my simple proposition makes no sense, I just have one question: Isn't this site blocked from your airline's work computers?
After you've left a comment here, let's continue the discussion on my consumer advocacy site or on Twitter, Facebook and Google. I also have a free newsletter and you'll definitely want to pre-order my new, amazingly helpful and subversive book called How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money, and Hassle). Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com