June 4, 2010 -- Dear Tim— I was unpleasantly surprised when Singapore [Airlines] refused to credit my United Mileage Plus account for my trip from Los Angeles to Tokyo to Denpasar, [Indonesia] and back to San Francisco because they said my flights were "ineligible" for mileage. I usually buy my tickets online myself but on this rare occasion, I used an agent whom I was careful to ask if the Singapore flights he suggested would accrue miles the same as United. I had no reason to check this since I had earned mileage before on Singapore. His initial itinerary clearly stated mileage would be accrued, and when I told him what had happened he said that the Singapore agent must have "lied" to him.
Had I known of any selective mileage exclusions, I would never have chosen to fly on a Star Alliance airline rather than United. I have written to the agent and spoken and written to Singapore and no one has offered to compensate me. The fare I paid was not excessively discounted (compared to other years), I was given no "Premier Economy" benefits, and from Tokyo to Denpasar I paid almost $300 for my third bag which was full of donated medical supplies for a clinic in Bali. I've made this trip for the past five years and never encountered mileage excluded flights or such excessive baggage charges. (That $300 would have meant a lot more to the clinic my NGO was setting up in Haiti.)
Is this just my tough luck/buyer beware, or do I have recourse other than to boycott this agent and never fly Singapore again? Previous to this experience I had concurred with the popular opinion that Singapore was one of the best airlines anywhere, and I elected to fly with them because of previous excellent experiences. I hope you can suggest some positive action I can take so I don't forfeit these thousands of miles.
As it happens, I worked for Singapore Airlines in the 1980s, when they established their first frequent flyer program relationship, with American's AAdvantage program. Part of my job at the time was responding to angry letters from AAdvantage members who complained that they hadn't received miles for their flights.
At the time, Singapore's policy was to award miles only for full coach fares and not for the discounted coach tickets most travelers actually bought. That was a marketing decision based on two considerations. First, AAdvantage miles were a cost to Singapore, which would dilute the already slim profit margins on discount coach tickets. And second, there was simply no reason to give away frequent flyer miles to travelers flying on cheap coach fares—the low prices were incentive enough.
Fast forward to 2010.
Singapore now partners with United instead of American. And while they have expanded somewhat the range of fares eligible for mileage accumulation, they still restrict mileage accumulation to the higher-priced coach fares.
According to United's website, Mileage Plus members receive miles when flying Singapore on the following coach fares: Y, B, E, H, K, M, S, W, L, and U. They do not award miles for X, I, O, G, Q, V, N, and T fares.
Alphabet soup, right? And if that weren't confusing enough, United's website cautions Singapore customers as follows: "Please note that the booking class shown on your ticket may differ from the booking class relevant for mileage accrual."
Even United seems a bit uncomfortable with Singapore's policy, noting, "The miles accrued are determined by the operating airline."
Assuming that you indeed flew on one of the ineligible fares, you have no recourse, legally speaking. There was clearly a miscommunication between your agent and the airline and you suffered the consequences.
I would suggest that you pressure the agent to petition Singapore to award the miles as a goodwill gesture. Because they serve as sales conduits for the airlines, travel agents have more clout than individual consumers and often can wrest concessions that would normally be denied.
The real problem, however, is Singapore's confusing, ambivalent policy and the carrier's proven inability effectively to communicate that policy to the traveling public.
As a matter of both marketing efficiency and simple fairness, the airline should either embrace a more inclusive mileage policy or find a way to communicate unequivocally which tickets are mileage-eligible and which are not.
That's what I told my boss at Singapore almost 30 years ago. It's no less true today.
Tim Winship is editor at large for SmarterTravel , as well as the editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com, and a frequently quoted expert on frequent flier programs. SmarterTravel provides expert, unbiased information on timely travel deals, the best value destinations, and money-saving travel tips.