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Airline merger will hurt some cardholders

Published: Monday, Jan. 20, 2014 7:00 a.m. CDT

In the cutthroat competition for credit-card travel perks, the US Airways-American Airlines merger has dealt a blow to American Express Platinum and Centurion cardholders.

The day after the merger was approved, creating the world’s largest airline, American announced that AmEx Platinum and Centurion cards would no longer provide free entry to US Airways and American’s airport lounges, effective March 22.

Only Citibank’s Citi Executive AAdvantage “world elite” MasterCard will carry complimentary access to American Admirals and US Airways club lounges.

Airport lounges are coveted by business travelers and frequent fliers as quiet places to work and relax while waiting for flights. The announcement angered elite AmEx cardholders, who pay a $450 annual fee for the Platinum card and $2,500 for the invitation-only Centurion black card.

“The reality is there are two very simple ways to solve this problem: You can buy lounge access, or you can get a different card that would provide you with access,” CrankyFlier.com author Brett Snyder said in an interview.

“If travelers think that every single change that happens will be pro-consumer, then they are mistaken. That has never happened in the history of mergers. It’s always a trade-off, and the hope is that the end result makes people happier on the whole than the previous situation.”

Brian Kelly, founder of ThePointsGuy.com, said: “There are a lot of unhappy cardholders. That’s just the name of the game. They always say mergers are best for consumers. They are best for business. These are businesses. They are there to make money, and they think that they can make more money going with a different credit-card issuer and taking perks away.”

Lawyers for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Consumer Protection said the matter was between the cardholder and the credit-card company.

Credit-card companies “can change, add or diminish benefits offered with a card at any time if the contract allows such changes,” said Joe Peters, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

Consumer issues in the US Airways-American merger were about the fares and the cities they served, Peters said. “This issue is about the relationship between airlines and their affinity cards, and those relationships change all the time.”

To offset the loss of lounge benefits, American Express is offering Platinum and Centurion card members a $200 credit toward incidental airline fees and has opened lounges in Las Vegas and Dallas, with others due to open soon at San Francisco and New York LaGuardia airports. The company plans more but has not said where.

Citibank has been American’s AAdvantage credit-card partner for a quarter-century. In 2009, when American was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy seeking to boost its liquidity, Citibank advanced American $1 billion by pre-purchasing miles in the AAdvantage frequent-flier program.

Last week, Delta Air Lines announced that the AmEx Platinum card would still provide complimentary entry to Delta Sky Clubs, but that as of May 1 it will cost $29 to bring a guest. The annual membership fee to join Delta’s airport lounges is going from $450 a year for an individual to $695 if the member brings guests.

“Let’s be clear: Airlines are doing this all over,” said aviation consultant Michael Boyd, who predicts 2014 will be a year of “disruptive” realities for air travel, including increases in miles needed for free travel at some airlines, requirements for fare-spend increases to redeem miles, and more common co-pays.

Airlines don’t need frequent-flier programs to keep loyal customers as they did 30 years ago, Boyd said: With just four comprehensive network carriers — United, Delta, Southwest, and the new American — people will fly them or they won’t fly. Operators such as Alaska, Frontier, Spirit, JetBlue and Virgin America don’t fly everywhere.

“Frequent-flier programs have outlived their original purpose,” he said. “Today, they are vehicles where consumers prove their loyalty to the airline in exchange for receiving the right to earn ‘noninconveniences’ — boarding earlier, a free checked bag, getting on in Zone 2 instead of Zone 8. You are going to see the cost of membership in frequent-flier programs and club rooms go up and perks go away.”

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