Give me my miles back.

I’m a loyal customer: I’ve banked at the same bank for 24 years, bought the same brand soap since I was 25, used the same credit card to make most of my purchases since 1976. My strategy is simple: do business with a merchant consistently and they will appreciate your business, no matter how modest.

So when the airlines inaugurated their frequent flier programs in the 80s, I immediately signed up with them all, but I concentrated my loyalty on United Airlines. I was flying a lot in California and coast to coast, and I figured if I gave all my business to United, they’d treat me right.

It worked out great with United – at first. I traveled as much as 50,000 miles a year on the airline, and United personnel would do their best to help me out on last-minute rescheduling, seat assignments, billing issues. If I had a real problem, I had the number of a person on their “executive staff” – the branch of the company that deals with problems that can’t be resolved by the front line customer service people – who would step in. Meanwhile, I hoarded my miles, saving them year after year for a trip to some exotic destination.

But then, in the mid-1990s, United expanded its operations. Planes were impossibly crowded; flights were cancelled and passengers were bumped; customer service at the gates collapsed.

To add insult to injury, United, like most other airlines, made it far more difficult to redeem frequent flyer miles.

Not surprisingly, when the industry fell off the cliff after 9/11, United found itself without many loyal customers to sustain the company.

Things are even worse now, after United’s bankruptcy. Customer Service is based in India. So is the “executive staff.”

And when I finally tried to cash in all the miles I had saved up so I could get a free trip overseas, United would not give me a single seat on a non-stop flight. Ended up on three separate flights that added six or seven more hours each way.

I called the Mileage Plus staff to complain, of course. Their response: “Well, what did you expect? You aren’t paying for this trip.” My reply: I paid for these miles with the tens of thousands of dollars I spent flying on your airline for years. This is not a “free trip.” I earned it with my loyalty.

Too bad that is not worth much today.