The coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on the global economy, causing a collapse in demand for domestic and international travel and leading airlines to cancel routes and ground airplanes.
It’s no surprise that frequent flyers may wonder what might happen to their hard-earned loyalty miles if their favorite airline fails to return to the skies. The answer is: It depends on the severity of the airline’s collapse.
How Frequent Flyer Miles Work
Airlines offer frequent flyer miles as a way to garner loyalty from their customers. Initially, travelers could earn an airline’s loyalty miles simply by booking flights.
Now, however, consumers have several opportunities to earn those miles. Depending on the airline, that can include using co-branded airline credit cards, spending with an airline’s partners, shopping online through its designated portal, and making everyday purchases.
Once you’ve earned enough frequent flyer miles, you can use them to book award tickets with the airline, upgrade to a higher seat class, or spend them via one of the loyalty program’s other redemption options.
For the airline, frequent flyer miles are included as a liability on its balance sheet. So if an airline goes under and looks to restructure or liquidate its debt, it’s natural for members of its loyalty program to be concerned.
Airline Financial Troubles During COVID-19
Airlines suffered significantly during the coronavirus pandemic. According to OAG, a travel data provider, scheduled flights in the U.S. alone were down by just 0.4% year over year in March 2020, then 57.8% in April 2020, and a staggering 72.6% in May 2020. By April of 2021, flights were up but still 43% below April 2019.
While there has been a recovery from the early days of the pandemic, 2021 remained a challenging year for the airline industry. The air-travel recovery was hampered during the normally busy holiday travel season in late 2021 by the surge in the Omicron variant.
To assist airlines and keep the industry's workforce employed, Congress included another round of pandemic stimulus and relief of $15 billion for airline employees and contractors in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
The Rescue Plan Act will help, but the road ahead still won’t be easy for airlines. Industry leaders don’t expect demand for air travel to rebound anytime soon, and they think the latest rehires may be only temporary.
What Happens to My Miles If an Airline Goes Bankrupt?
First, it’s important to note the distinction between going bankrupt and going out of business. Some well-known carriers have filed bankruptcy in the last 20 years, including American, Delta, and United, and continued to operate.
What happens to frequent flyer miles in airline bankruptcy depends on the results of the proceeding. For example, if the company enters a debt-restructuring plan and continues to operate, your loyalty miles will likely stay safe.
However, if the airline ceases to operate entirely, you may lose your miles and all the value that came with them.
The value of most airline miles fluctuates over time as the underlying cost of airfare fluctuates with the market. Airlines can also reset the value of their miles at any time. So while an airline and its loyalty program may survive bankruptcy, the value of your miles may be reduced in the process.
Ways to Cash out Your Loyalty Miles Now
Even if an airline goes bankrupt, the airline and its loyalty program may survive and continue to offer value to customers. However, if you’re concerned about the worst-case scenario—or even just a devaluation of your miles—and you want to use your miles while you can, you can use them for other benefits. Depending on the airline, you may have other redemption options, such as:
- Booking other travel
- Booking local experiences
- Buying merchandise
- Purchasing gift cards
- Ordering magazine subscriptions
Before you pull the trigger on a redemption, though, think carefully about how likely it is that the airline will cease operations. If it doesn’t, you could end up leaving money on the table by using your rewards for less-expensive, non-award flight redemptions. That’s because the best value for airline miles is to be had when redeeming them for award flights.
The Bottom Line
If you’re concerned about your miles as the pandemic continues to dampen travel demand, stay abreast of news about your favorite airline’s fortunes. Meanwhile, check your program for details on other redemption options or transfer possibilities. If a devaluation—or worse—seems likely, you’ll be ready to move.
Consider putting away your co-branded airline travels rewards card and switching to a general travel rewards card connected to Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, or Citi ThankYou Rewards. These cards let you use your points for a variety of travel purchases, not just airfare. Some even allow transfers to airline loyalty programs, so when the dust settles, you can transfer the points you’ve earned back to your favorite airline’s loyalty program—provided the airline is still flying.