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More than 4.7 million Americans are expected to fly this Thanksgiving, according to AAA – which means roughly one of every 70 Americans may soon be very stressed out. To the endless lines, delays and other indignities of commercial air travel, add this: ever-changing frequent flyer program rules that often seem to erode their benefits. Delta and American are just two of the airlines that have reworked theirs over the past year.

What gives? Blame the wonky economics of flying.

Boston University business professors Jay Zagorsky and H. Sami Karaca, who study loyalty programs, say that all well-designed rewards schemes follow the same principles, regardless of whether they’re intended to sell flights or coffee. But commercial air travel is unusual in a lot of ways – starting with the fact that airlines don’t earn that much money from ticket sales. And that’s why frequent flyer programs are a bit odd, too.

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Tracy Walsh

Economy + Business Editor

A boom time for airlines can a bust for loyal passengers. Martin-dm/E+/Getty Images

Airlines are frustrating travelers by changing frequent flyer program rules – here’s why they keep doing it

Jay L. Zagorsky, Boston University; H. Sami Karaca, Boston University

Loyalty schemes tend to be the most generous when the economy has hit a patch of turbulence.

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