PAGO PAGO, American Samoa » American Samoa plans to take away frequent flier miles from government workers who travel on behalf of the U.S. territory and use the loyalty points to help medical patients and students travel off the islands when necessary.
Hawaiian Airlines agreed to the plan that takes effect on June 1, American Samoa Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga said. The airline is the only carrier connecting the unincorporated U.S. territory midway between Hawaii and New Zealand with the rest of the United States.
Moliga announced the policy this week in a memo to the territorial government’s various agencies. He acknowledged some people might see the move as unfair but called it "morally wrong" for employees to get extra benefits from the privilege of traveling for the territory as a government employee.
"We have a moral responsibility to help out those of our people who, not by any fault of theirs, find themselves in situations where outside assistance is needed," Moliga said. "The added benefit provided by the frequent flier mileage award should be shared with those of our community who are truly impoverished and destitute."
American Samoa, made up of two small islands in the south Pacific slightly larger in area than Washington, D.C., budgeted nearly $6 million for government travel in fiscal 2013.
Tim Winship, editor and publisher of Frequent Flier.com, a website dedicated to the use of airline miles, said corporations and governments have sometimes considered keeping miles from employees. But he hasn’t heard of any taking the idea as far as American Samoa has with its new policy.
Winship said the arrangement presents practical and moral hurdles. Airlines typically tie frequent flier miles to individual travelers, while frequent travel takes employees away from home without really compensating them for time away from family and the normal frustrations of air travel, he said.
"None of that is in any way compensated through one’s normal salary, and frequent flier miles have historically been seen as a way of compensating business travelers for that," Winship said.
He said it’s an uncomfortable stretch for Moliga to call government travel a privilege.
"At the very least, you can expect there to be a lot of disgruntled passengers — a lot of disgruntled (American Samoa) employees," Winship said. "Calling travel on business a privilege, you’re going to get some pretty frequent pushback from travelers on that characterization."
Moliga said Hawaiian Airlines agreed to create a corporate account for the territory to deposit all miles for flights paid for by the territory’s government.
Hawaiian Airlines declined comment, referring questions to the American Samoa government. Shares of parent company Hawaiian Holdings Inc. were unchanged Wednesday at $5.50 per share.
The new policy comes four years after a territorial lawmaker tried to introduce legislation for a similar arrangement to provide funding for a referral program to send patients off the islands from American Samoa’s only hospital, which is publicly run.
The program has gone without funding since 2008. Since then, patients who need medical care outside American Samoa have had to pay their own airfare and hospital care through private insurance or Medicaid.
Associated Press writer Oskar Garcia in Honolulu contributed to this report.