What does Avianca's bankruptcy filing mean for the LifeMiles program?
Editor’s note: At TPG, our top priority is providing our readers with the information needed to make educated decisions about travel and rewards-earning strategy. This is not the best time to travel, domestically or internationally, as airlines have cut major parts of their route networks. But we are sharing this information to provide value for future travel once coronavirus concerns have subsided.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to drag on, airlines that are unable to secure financial assistance from their local governments are finding themselves in increasingly tough spots. Now the spotlight is on Colombian carrier Avianca, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in New York on May 10.
Avianca is the second-largest carrier in Latin America and has a strong U.S. route network, though it hasn't operated a regularly scheduled commercial flight since the end of March. While Avianca plans to resume flying as the pandemic subsides, award travelers around the world are worried about how this announcement will affect Avianca's frequent flyer program LifeMiles.
Today we're going to walk through the points and miles implications of Avianca's bankruptcy filing, and why your miles are probably safe.
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The mass appeal of LifeMiles
Just a few years ago, Avianca LifeMiles was an obscure program that only the most advanced award travelers knew anything about. More recently, American Express Membership Rewards and Capital One have added Avianca as a transfer partner, making the lucrative LifeMiles award chart more accessible than ever before.
There are a lot of reasons to love LifeMiles, from the low award rates for Star Alliance premium-cabin awards to the fact that LifeMiles doesn't pass on fuel surcharges, even for partners like Lufthansa where premium-cabin awards can get notoriously expensive when booked with other frequent flyer programs like Aeroplan. LifeMiles also offers discounts on mixed-cabin awards, meaning that flying first class from the U.S. to Tokyo with an economy connection on to another destination like Okinawa (OKA) will price out cheaper than just the nonstop flight to Tokyo.
Related: How to avoid fuel surcharges on award travel
That's to say nothing of the fact that Avianca already offers the cheapest one-way premium-cabin awards between the U.S. and Asia, charging 90,000 miles for a first-class award when United MileagePlus and Aeroplan (Air Canada) both charge over 100,000 miles. For all these reasons, LifeMiles has become one of my favorite programs to use and accounts for about 50% of all my redemptions over the last year.
Related: Everything you need to know about Avianca LifeMiles
What Avianca's bankruptcy means for LifeMiles
While frequent flyer programs started as small divisions within the airlines they served, they've grown massively in recent years. There are a number of airlines that make more money from their loyalty programs and credit card partnerships than from actually flying planes, and for that reason, many frequent flyer programs are now run as separate business entities.
This is the way Avianca is structured, with LifeMiles operating as a separate company from the main airline. Importantly, LifeMiles is not a part of Avianca's Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. This means that LifeMiles currently has enough capital to meet all of its obligations, and Avianca has doubled down on its commitment to the LifeMiles program even as it enters bankruptcy proceedings. All LifeMiles elite members have had their status extended through January 2022, and members can continue to earn and redeem LifeMiles while Avianca restructures.
Related: Why you need LifeMiles for domestic travel
The biggest question mark here is what will happen to Avianca long term. If the airline is able to successfully restructure and emerge from bankruptcy protection, there won't be any long-term effect on the LifeMiles program. If, however, Avianca goes out of business or is forced by creditors to liquidate, that could spell trouble for LifeMiles. While customers wouldn't lose their mileage balances in this case, they could lose the ability to redeem them for Star Alliance award flights as LifeMiles can only access that space through Avianca.
You may still be able to redeem miles for merchandise, car rentals, hotels and more, though the program would lose a lot of value. Given LifeMiles' close relationship with financial institutions all over Latin America and globally, it's possible that the program could live on even without an airline partnership in a worst-case scenario.
Related: If you're worried about airline bankruptcy, here's how to burn through your miles now
While a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing is a signal that things are bad, this action also gives companies more time and assistance to sort out their debt and chart a stable path forward. It's important to understand that LifeMiles is a separate company from Avianca, and is not affected by this bankruptcy filing.
Members can continue to earn and redeem their LifeMiles as usual, and as long as Avianca is able to emerge from bankruptcy protection successfully there should be no long-term impact on the program.
Featured photo by Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.