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The Airlines' New Buddy Systems

American and US Airways. Delta and United. Now, Continental and Northwest.

Marketing alliances are becoming a way of life in the airline business--and that's generally good news if you're in one of the carriers' frequent-flier programs.

But not all frequent-flier pairings are equal. When members of United's Mileage Plus and Delta's SkyMiles programs take to the skies, they can assign miles to either account or redeem awards on either carrier. They cannot pool miles, however. Having 30,000 miles in a United account and 30,000 on Delta doesn't qualify you for a 60,000-mile award. Plus, you can't put your miles into the other carrier's account for international flights. As part of the Star Alliance, United members can earn miles on SAS, Lufthansa, and certain other overseas flights. The miles are worthless on Delta.

When you make a reservation on one of the alliance carriers, you should usually credit a flight to the account where you have more miles. This gives you a greater range of future options--such as free international tickets or seats for the whole family. The exception: when you're close to achieving elite status on the carrier with which you have fewer miles. But miles accrued on one airline may not qualify for elite rewards on the other, making it harder to earn first-class upgrades and other perks. You also may not receive credit in one airline's account for flying on the partner's commuter lines. United Express miles, for example, can't be assigned to your Delta account.

FINE PRINT. American-US Airways follows a different course. If you belong to both programs, you can combine miles to earn an award. In one case, you can actually earn miles on both airlines simultaneously. Through Sept. 30, passengers who use the US Airways Shuttle between New York and Boston or Washington can earn 500 miles in the American AAdvantage and US Airways Dividend Miles plans. As with the Delta-United alliance, miles on one won't earn you elite status on the other.

Starting on Mar. 1, that won't be the case in the new Continental-Northwest union. The lines won't let you combine miles, but both let you earn miles and request awards on the other airline. After Feb. 1, you'll also be able to book free tickets for as few as 20,000 miles, though you can't fly during June through August. In addition, Northwest is abolishing deadlines for cashing in miles, matching Continental's program.

But can you get where you want to go? Laurie Berger, editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is concerned that ''airlines are beating their chests about how many miles you can now earn. But when it comes to redeeming [miles], they're very quiet.'' Competition for the most desirable seats becomes more intense because, for example, US Airways frequent fliers--who didn't before have the chance to get to Hawaii on miles---will now try to do so on American. So figure out where your miles go farthest, and book early.

By Edward C. Baig

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Updated Jan. 7, 1999 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1999, Bloomberg L.P.
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