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Airlines' frequent flyer programs are so complicated only half of members understand them

  • The J.D. Power and Associates survey ranked the biggest U.S. airlines' programs.
  • JetBlue received the highest rating, while United scored the lowest.
  • Airlines have made it more difficult to earn miles.
A Jet Blue aircraft takes off from Long Beach Airport in Long Beach, CA.
Tim Rue | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A Jet Blue aircraft takes off from Long Beach Airport in Long Beach, CA.

How well do you understand your airline's frequent flyer program?

Just 52 percent of travelers said they fully understand how to redeem miles from their airline loyalty program, according to a survey published Wednesday by J.D. Power and Associates.

Travelers would be forgiven for not grasping the increasingly complicated formulas airlines use to earn or redeem miles.

Overall, it's become more difficult to earn miles on some of the largest airlines, which now reward passengers based on how much travelers spend on a ticket. Previously travelers could rake in the points based on how far they traveled. It has also become more difficult to earn higher statuses on airlines, which grant automatic upgrades and other perks.

Travelers are understandably more satisfied with airline loyalty programs that waive same-day change fees or offer bonus points.

J.D. Power ranked the responses on a point system, with 1,000 as the top score. Here's how respondents rated U.S. airlines' programs:

The survey, based on responses from 3,387 people who were polled in September, found that travelers are more satisfied with their frequent flyer programs when they can redeem points for things other than flights.

"Flexibility in how miles are redeemed is valued by members," Michael Taylor, the head of J.D. Power's travel practice, said in the study. "After all, if you win a pie-eating contest, you may want to be rewarded with something besides another pie."

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