Northwest and Delta clearly really want to keep travelers loyal to their brands. Both airlines have been sending their elite-level frequent flier program members e-mails announcing a “gift” of elite-qualifying miles (EQMs, or, in the case of Delta, MQMs for “Medallion Qualifying Miles”), making it easier to requalify for status next year. Which, in turn, increases the likelihood that those travelers will stay with the brand.

With few exceptions, EQMs are earned primarily by flying, unlike the redeemable miles that can also be earned through credit card spending, rental cars, etc. So EQMs are a greater measure of loyalty to an airline (and its alliance partners) than redeemables.

The size of the EQM gift ranges from 5000 EQMs (20% of the way to entry-level status) all the way to 15,000, but according to reports on Flyertalk threads (here for Delta, here for Northwest), there’s no obvious rhyme or reason. A traveler with 140K miles under his belt for the year got a 5000 mile bonus (which doesnt’ really change anything) while a traveler with far fewer miles got more. I don’t get it.

Reader Cindy forwarded me a message she received from Northwest, quoted below:

A jump start can be the perfect beginning.

That’s why we’re excited to provide you with 10,000 complimentary Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) – which have already been deposited into your WorldPerks account – to help you requalify for Elite status in 2010.

We understand your ability to travel is more restricted this year, due to the economy and other factors, but we hope you’ll continue to fly with us and enjoy your elite status benefits while continuing to add even more Elite Qualification Miles to your balance. Take advantage of our vast new network, serving almost 400 destinations in more than 65 countries on six continents, including new routes to Johannesburg, Sydney, Saigon and beyond. Book a flight today.

You’re the reason we fly,

Jeff Robertson
Vice President – Loyalty Programs

This is bound to please many people who might have lost their status (and the commensurate perks) next year. On the flip side, it’s bound to annoy people who get fewer EQMs than they think they deserve, relative to others. It can equally annoy customers who earned their status through actual flying, instead of bonuses. But hey, it’s a business decision on the part of the airlines, and they think they’ll be able to keep more business this way.

Will other airlines follow suit?…

How’s this for an indicator that premium-class travel isn’t selling: The recently-merged Delta and Northwest are permitting passengers of high-fare international economy fare tickets to upgrade to business class for just 1 mile each way.

2 miles to upgrade an international roundtrip? Two?!!

Northwest and Delta both sent e-mails to their lists. Here’s a piece of a Delta e-mail, but the gist is the same for flights on Delta’s subsidiary, Northwest:

You can now upgrade to our award-winning BusinessElite cabin for one mile each way when you fly internationally on a paid Y, B or M Economy fare between June 30 and September 15, 2009.

Terms & Conditions
Eligible Fares/Booking: All taxes, fees and blackout dates are governed by the rules of the Y, B or M economy class fare purchased. Additional upgrade tax may apply. SkyMiles members can request a one-way upgrade Award for 1-mile for paid tickets purchased in Y, B, or M economy class between the continental United States, Alaska, and Canada and any international destination that offers J class fares (BusinessElite) where upgrade class of service is available on Delta or Northwest-operated flights only. SkyMiles members must call a Delta reservations representative for upgrades. Tickets: Must be purchased and upgrade requested no later than July 13, 2009. Travel Period: Travel must be completed by September 15, 2009. Restrictions: Availability of one-way upgrade inventory is limited and may not be available on all flights. Some markets may have more availability than others. Members may reissue existing tickets to be eligible for upgrade offer, but will need to pay applicable fees. Customers may combine this upgrade Award with other one-way upgrade Awards. Upgrades not available on Air France and KLM or any other SkyTeam® or codeshare partner operated flights. Tickets are nontransferable. SkyMiles accrual will be for class of service originally purchased. Miscellaneous: All SkyMiles program rules apply. To review the rules, please visit Fares, taxes, fees, rules, and offers are subject to change without notice. Other restrictions may apply. Please refer Delta reservations representative to 970222.

“Additional upgrade tax” ??! Be sure to get a full quote before you finalize anything.

Also, and very importantly: Note that the eligible fares — Y, B, and M — aren’t the rock-bottom cheapie bucket of fares, they’re at the top end — the most expensive range of economy fares.

You may in fact be able to find a cheaper fare confirmed in business class by looking for a business fare outright. (Most likely a fare with a “Z” an “I” or “S” fare code.) Shop around.

All told, though, spending 2 miles for a roundtrip international upgrade is fantastic value. The airlines are obviously having trouble filling seats. Summer months are typically slow for paid business class travel, and that’s on top of the recession’s crimp on high-fare spending.

Take advantage while you can.

Upgraded: Room rate guarantees
In a continuing escalation of the war between the online travel agencies, Orbitz has added their Price Assurance guarantee to hotel reservations. If you book a room, and then someone else uses Orbitz to book the same hotel, with the same class of hotel room and on the same dates, and the price has dropped since you booked it, you get a refund. That’s a lot of if’s! This is not as robust as Yapta’s effort to track hotel room rates, but it’s an improvement, nonetheless.

Upgraded: Coffee on Southwest
Southwest Airlines is cranking out an improved brew on its flights. They are quick to remind customers that they’re still not charging a fee for the pleasure of arabica beans at 35,000 feet.

Downgraded: Coffee on Northwest
Back on the ground, a Northwest Airlines flight attendant charged with tending to an unaccompanied minor allegedly took an 8-year old to Starbucks. The flight attendant allegedly gave the girl a venti coffee loaded with cream and sugar, which made her sick. “I told her I was tired and she took me to Starbucks and said, ‘Go order a large coffee.’ She made me pay with my own money.” Why would anyone give an eight-year old, who is about to get into a plane, coffee? I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that an airline employee had slipped the kid a Benadryl, frankly, but giving an 8-year old a giant coffee makes no sense. Northwest says the story “doesn’t match their records.”

Upgraded: Stories of irate passengers
Every time I think the latest story of a passenger gone wild on an aircraft is the winner, there’s a new story that takes the crown. And I quote: “A British woman allegedly had an in-flight meal of prescription drugs, wine and liquid soap — before trying to bite the crew of a London-bound jetliner. Galina Rusanova punched and kicked flight attendants on the Chicago-based United Airlines flight after downing two or three bottles of wine, prescription drugs and liquid soap from the jet’s lavatory, prosecutors said.”

Upgraded: Nonstops to see Yakov Smirnoff
Upgraded: Airline monopolies

Branson, Missouri! America’s low-rent Vegas! No, gambling or smut, but you can get Soviet Union jokes o’plenty! But this Ozark mecca of entertainment has-beens finally has its own airport. It apparently bears the distinction of being America’s first privately-owned airport with commercial service, and it was built without federal transportation funds. The flipside of this savings to the taxpayer: The airport can negotiate exclusivity on routes. If airlines have exclusive contracts for service for a delimited timeframe, “That’s a major incentive to an airline because they know they won’t have to duke it out over fares with anyone.” In English, we call that monopoly.

yakov smirnoff Upgrades and Downgrades    Hotel rate guarantees, coffee good and bad, lavatory soap, and Yakov Smirnoff

approaching airport Upgrades and Downgrades    Passenger dropoffs, failed lawsuits, and frequent flyer sales

Downgraded: Willingness of friends and loved ones to give you a ride to the airport
Airports’ inventive enthusiasm for new fees rivals that of the airlines, as we’ve seen when airports try to add fees to previously free services like shuttle buses. The latest entry: A passenger dropoff fee. London-Luton Airport will charge a £1 toll to cars bringing passengers to the departures area, with a 10-minute time limit. Dropoff at a parking shuttle bus stop remains complimentary. Birmingham charges double the fee for a 15-minute time window. Great, now they’re not just charging the traveler, but also the family or friends. I realize that this is a way to manage traffic as well as raise money, but I honestly hope we don’t see this set of fees proliferate. (Thanks, Rick!)

Downgraded: Tort law remedies for trapped passengers
A passenger who sued American Airlines for being stuck on a plane on the tarmac for 9 and a half hours (ouch) had her case dismissed by the court. Her charge of false imprisonment didn’t stick.

Upgraded: Buses
Private jets are out. What’s in: Pimped out corporate buses.

Upgraded: Short-term discounts booking Delta or Northwest miles
Delta and Northwest are temporarily reducing the number of miles you need to book frequent flier tickets to international destinations on Delta, Northwest, or KLM. It’s only through April 20, and only for travel abroad, so move quickly. See here for Northwest, or here for Delta. Another sign that traffic across the oceans isn’t exactly brisk… (And remember, you can get bonus miles through April 15 — again, hurry! — for converting your Northwest WorldPerks miles to Delta SkyMiles.)

Upgraded: Weird contraband found at airports
Downgraded: Pigeon welfare

The NY Daily News has a set of photos of items found by customs agents at airports. Most are drug related, but my favorite has to be this image of a man with pigeons wrapped up and kept in his long underwear:

pigeons in pants Upgrades and Downgrades    Pigeon carriers, Million mile movie, fees, tantrums, and much more

“Sir, your pants are cooing.”

Downgraded: Priorities
A new film being made with George Clooney in the lead role is apparently based on the premise of a man seeking to collect 1 million frequent flyer miles. I would rather see a film devoted a person seeking to spend 1 million frequent flyer miles…

Downgraded: “Good luck” cards for illegal immigrants
Staying on the customs-and-immigration theme… A Mexican man attempting to enter the UK, with the intention of overstaying his visa, was flagged as a probable immigrant, rather than a tourist, when a card was found in his luggage containing the sentiment, “Good luck in your new life in the UK!” The UK Border Agency trumpeted that they were sending him “back.” But the man flew to Manchester from Los Angeles… I wonder what his return ticket read.

Upgraded: Advantage Rent-a-Car revived, in death
Bankrupt Advantage Rent-a-Car’s assets are being bought by competitor Enterprise, assuming the courts approve. But with the ongoing slump in the rental market, I’m surprised Enterprise would even want more cars or offices!

Upgraded: Northwest and Delta mileage accounts
I realize I’ve been negligent in not mentioning this before: You can merge Northwest WorldPerks miles into an existing Delta SkyMiles account and receive a 500-mile bonus for doing so, if you do it by April 15, 2009. The miles will instantly transfer over, but the bonus will take a few weeks to post.

Downgraded: Spirit Airlines charging fees again for buying tickets on their own website
I have to say, part of me loves the gall that Spirit Airlines has. Last year, they instituted a “passenger usage fee” of $4.90 for buying tickets on their own website. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is: The airline tried this last summer, but retracted it within a few days. In the WSJ, Scott McCartney has this summary:

Spirit tried charging a $7.90 passenger usage fee last year, along with a $2.50 “natural occurrence interruption fee” (to cover storm-related costs) and an $8.50 “international service recovery fee” to pay for some taxes and fees the airline pays to foreign governments. But the DOT stepped in and ordered the airline to stop; federal rules require airlines to include airline-imposed charges that all customers must pay in advertised fares.

Spirit was fined $40,000 but remained undeterred. Since then, the airline has been negotiating with the DOT to find an acceptable way under department rules to charge the passenger booking fee. “We will be reintroducing it in a way the DOT is comfortable with,” Mr. Baldanza says.

Offended? Complain. Here and here.

Downgraded: Missing a flight
Downgraded as well: Airline staff who film passengers

A passenger who flipped out when she missed her flight to Hong Kong, and was caught on cameraphone throwing a huge tantrum, has received an apology from the airline that kept her off the plane. Not because she didn’t board, but because the embarrassing video was made by a Cathay Pacific employee. (Notably, they claim the employee wasn’t the one to have uploaded the video to YouTube, but that’s hardly a vital distinction at this point.) I didn’t post the original video when it started making the rounds, because it seemed to be everywhere at the time, but I’ll include it here for context.

united customer service phone Upgrades and Downgrades: Southwest wi fi, United customer non service, fare sales and $0 fares, and moreDowngraded: United unplugs customer complaint phone line
The Indian call center that took United Airlines passenger compliments or complaints is being shut down, in favor of going entirely e-mail. “United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said the airline is able to respond better to customers who write, since they often include more detail, making it possible to provide a more specific response.” Not to mention that sending a form letter response is faster than having a real conversation. And I’m positive every disgruntled passenger appreciates the convenience of requiring them to take the time to write, rather than make a quick call from the road… Sure.

Upgraded: Transatlantic deals on Virgin Atlantic
Virgin Atlantic has a great sale going on right now over the pond, with economy fares as low as $453 round trip including taxes, and premium economy for as low as $675. Best part: No advance purchase. Buy today, leave today! But fares aren’t just last-minute fares, either. But no summer fares. You’ll find the cheapest prices from Feb 11, 2009 – Mar 22, 2009 or Oct 22, 2009 – Nov 30, 2009.

Downgraded: $0 airfares
I’ve always felt that companies should honor the prices they publish. And in an era of airlines that pay you to fly them, why wouldn’t a passenger think that a $0 airfare (plus taxes) was legit? Alas, tickets booked on Northwest at that last Wednesday fare aren’t being honored, unless the passengers are already mid-trip.

Upgraded: Inflight wi-fi live on Southwest
If you’re flying Southwest today (Wednesday, Feb. 11), check to see if you’re flying on aircraft #901. It’s the first plane equipped with inflight wi-fi. The plane is routed OAK-ONT-PHX-SAN-OAK-SNA-PHX-OAK-PHX. And while the service is being tested, the wi-fi is free.

Downgraded: Reading, Geography, Responsibility
A Thomas Cook travel agent mistakenly booked a passenger to San Juan, Puerto Rico, instead of San Jose, Costa Rica. SJU instead of SJO. Bad mistake. But didn’t the traveler bear any responsibility to check the tickets — or heck, figure this out at the departure airport?? I love her quote, though: “I looked around the airport, saw posters of Puerto Rico everywhere, and thought: ‘What am I going to do? Where is Puerto Rico? Where am I?’” Yes, “where is Puerto Rico.”

Downgraded: Surprise
Headline: “Surprising number of companies cut travel spending.” Umm, “surprising”? Have USA Today’s editors been so insulated from the economic crisis that they’re shocked that travel spending is cut back?