Many airlines have frequent-flyer programs designed to encourage airline customers enrolled in the program to accumulate points (also called miles, kilometers or segments) which may then be redeemed for air travel or other rewards. Points earned under FFPs may be based on the class of fare, distance flown on that airline or its partners, or the amount paid. There are other ways to earn points. For example, in recent years, more points have been earned by using co-branded credit and debit cards than by air travel. Another way to earn points is spending money at associated retail outlets, car hire companies, hotels or other associated businesses. Points can be redeemed for air travel, other goods or services, or for increased benefits, such as travel class upgrades, airport lounge access, or priority bookings.
Frequent-flyer programs can be seen as a certain type of virtual currency, one with unidirectional flow of money to purchase points, but no exchange back into money.
Though United tracked customers as far back as the 1950s, the very first modern frequent-flyer program was created in 1972 by Western Direct Marketing, for United Airlines. It gave plaques and promotional materials to members. In 1979, Texas International Airlines created the first frequent-flyer program that used mileage tracking to give 'rewards' to its passengers, while in 1980 Western Airlines created its Travel Bank, which ultimately became part of Delta Air Lines' program upon their merger in 1987. American Airlines' AAdvantage program launched in 1981 as a modification of a never-realized concept from 1979 that would have given special fares to frequent customers. It was quickly followed later that year by programs from United Airlines (Mileage Plus) and Delta Air Lines (SkyMiles), and in 1982 from British Airways (Executive Club).
Since then, frequent-flyer programs have grown enormously. As of January 2005, a total of 14 trillion frequent-flyer points had been accumulated by people worldwide, which corresponds to a total value of 700 billion US dollars.
Most larger airlines around the world have frequent flyer programs each having a program name, policies and restrictions regarding joining, accumulating and redeeming points.
The primary method of obtaining points in a frequent-flyer program until recent years was to fly with the associated airline. Most systems reward travelers with a specific number of points based on the distance traveled (such as 1 point per mile flown), although systems vary. Many discount airlines, rather than awarding points per mile, award points for flight segments in lieu of distance or the amount paid. For example, a number of airlines in Europe offer a fixed number of points for domestic or intra-European flights regardless of the distance (but varying according to class of travel). With the introduction of airline alliances and code-share flights, frequent-flyer programs are often extended to allow benefits to be used across partner airlines.
Most, if not all, programs award bonus earnings to premium-cabin passengers and to their elite-status members based on tier status; earning an extra 25%-100% of miles flown are common bonuses. While these bonus points don't count toward ascension to (or retention of) elite status, they count toward the member's total balance for normal redemption purposes.
Minimum credit guarantee
Some programs award a full 500 points (or a similar minimum credit guarantee) for non-stop flights spanning less than 500 miles. An airline's program can either award this guarantee to all members regardless of elite status, or they can reserve this privilege only for their elite members.
Credit card purchases
Many credit card companies partner with airlines to offer a co-branded credit card or the ability to transfer points in their loyalty program to an airline's program. Large sign-up bonuses and other incentives have been common. Accruing points via credit cards bonuses and spending allows infrequent travelers to benefit from the frequent flyer program.
Frequent-flyer programs may offer points through other means, such as purchasing food or merchandise sold by an affiliated company. American engineer David Phillips became known as the "Pudding Guy" in 2000 for purchasing $3,140 of Healthy Choice pudding that awarded him 1,253,000 AAdvantage miles.
Some carriers also require frequent flyers to spend a set amount of money on tickets before they are eligible for elite status. This is in addition to the miles-flown requirements that are already in place. Delta switched to revenue-based elite status requirements in January 2014, United in March 2015, with American Airlines the last of the three US legacy carriers to switch on August 1, 2016. This has led to some frequent flyers devaluing those programs over others, as the changing model can be less rewarding to frequent flyers.
After accumulating a certain number of points, members then use these points to obtain airline tickets. However, points only pay for the base fare, with the member still responsible for the payment of mandatory taxes and fees.
Although a controversial topic and a source of frustration among frequent flyers, award flights are still the primary commodity purchased by members using points. While alliances and partnerships have facilitated the redemption process for some programs, award seat availability is still subject to blackout dates and seasonal fluctuations, as airlines utilize statistics, yield management and capacity-control formulas to determine the number of seats to allocate for award booking.
This lack of availability has since been alleviated by non-airline rewards programs, such as certain credit cards (see above) and other corporate programs (Expedia Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest) by allowing a member to use points to search for and purchase revenue tickets as if using cash.
Products and services
Depending on an airline's program, members can also redeem points toward cabin upgrades, hotel stays, car rentals and purchase of various retail items. On American Airlines' AAdvantage program for example, it is possible to pay for a complete vacation package solely with points.
Value of points
Travelers frequently debate on how much accumulated points are worth, something which is highly variable based on how they are redeemed. An estimate is approximately 1-2 cents per points based on discount (rather than full fare) economy class travel costs.
The author of an economics PhD thesis published in 2014 at Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia, examined the cash-equivalent value (purchasing power) of loyalty points, the impact of FFPs on consumer behavior and surplus, and the taxation issues surrounding FFPs. Unlike most previous research on FFPs, this research used data from an actual FFP. The cash-equivalent value of a loyalty point in 2010 was estimated to range between AU$0.0066 and AU$0.0084. This range however excluded the value of status benefits to the status member. The loyalty point gained by a FFP member per flight equated to an in-kind discount on an average airfare of 3.3% for lowest status members, 3.96% for medium status members and 4.63% for premium status members. A detailed survey undertaken in 2010 among a representative sample of over 3300 members of that specific FFP showed that a large proportion of leisure and business travelers admitted a willingness to pay a higher fare - a FFP premium - to fly with the sponsoring airline because of their FFP membership. The average FFP premium was estimated to be around 8% and was statistically different between leisure and business travelers. The cash-equivalent value of a loyalty point as encapsulated in the FFP premium was estimated to range between AU$0.0108 and AU$0.0153, depending on the FFP status of a member.
The airlines themselves value points in their financial statements at less than one one-thousandth of a cent per points.. That loyalty points undoubtedly have an estimable monetary value is also reflected in the fact that some programs allow for the donation of frequent-flyer points to certain charities.
There are two predominant points redemption systems in place that airlines use for redemptions: fixed price awards and variable price awards. Airlines such as American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and other major carriers typically use fixed price awards, which allow customers to book awards at a set price. For example, a customer could use 12,500 points on most airlines for a domestic one-way flight. These prices rarely change, so changes in flight prices do not affect the cost of the award flight.
Other airlines use a variable price system. These are typically low cost carriers like Southwest Airlines or JetBlue Airways. In the variable price system, the price in points varies directly with the underlying price of a ticket in cash.
Accounting and regulatory issues
Business travelers typically accrue the valuable points in their own names, rather than the names of the companies that paid for the travel. This has raised concerns that the company is providing a tax-free benefit (point-based awards) to employees, or that employees have misappropriated value that belongs to the company, or even that the rewards acts as a kind of bribe to encourage travelers to choose one particular airline or travel unnecessarily. Most companies consider the miles earned by their employees to be a valuable personal perk that in part compensates for the daily grind of frequent business travel, though some governmental organizations have attempted to prevent their employees from accumulating miles on official travel. Although it has long been recognized that FFP rewards earned on employer-funded business flights should be subject to either income or fringe-benefit taxation, this is currently not taking place in the vast majority of countries - a notable exception however being Germany. One of the main arguments against the implementation of taxation is the lack of a monetary tax base. It can however be argued that since the cash-equivalent value of loyalty currency can be reasonably estimated with public data, this value is appropriate as a tax base. Hurdles preventing the taxation of FFP rewards are generally less related to the technical issue of valuation, but have more to do with legal constraints (e.g. "who owns the points") and often a lack of political will (e.g. "who would lose out due to taxation"). Interestingly, Australian and German public servants are not permitted to redeem points accrued from official travel for private purposes. The Australian example occurred in the 1990s when Qantas and the now-defunct Ansett Australia competed for the Australian federal government travel contract; this was put forward as a system requirement for the competing companies in order to win the contract.
In the US, the General Services Administration has regulated, "frequent traveler benefits earned [by federal employees] in connection with official travel, [which] may be used only for official travel, see 41 C.F.R. § 301-1.6(f)." Frequent flyer program contracts are not generally regulated.
Climate and environmental issues
Frequent-flyer programs have been receiving scrutiny because of the prevalence and rapid growth of air travel, in terms of both the frequency that individuals fly and the tendency toward longer distance travel. There have also been calls for an end to frequent-flyer programs. An increase in the number of hypermobile travelers has been identified as a particular aspect of the issue because of the highly disproportionate contribution of this class of individuals to aviation greenhouse gas emissions, and frequent-flyer programs are a contributing factor.
Precedent exists for ending frequent-flyer programs. In 2002, Norway established a ban on domestic frequent-flyer programs in order to promote competition among its airlines, and lifted the ban in 2013 when the competitive situation changed. In 2005, Morten A. Meyer, the Modernization Minister asked the competition authority to consider extending the Norwegian ban on frequent flyer miles to include all of Scandinavia. In the U.S. in 1989, a vice president of Braniff said the government should consider ordering an end to frequent-flyer programs, which he said allow unfair competition.
A mileage run is an airline trip designed and taken solely to gain maximum frequent-flyer miles, points, or elite status. If a traveler has already achieved some sort of elite status, then that traveler will earn bonus award miles on top of his or her actual flight miles. Depending on the program, that traveler will reach their goal sooner if the miles they accrue are elite qualifying miles. A mileage run may allow a traveler to (re-)qualify for a beneficial elite level, which requires a minimum number of miles to qualify. Some airlines have changed their frequent flyer rules to award miles based on ticket expense rather than absolute distance traveled, which may remove the incentive for mileage runs.
Some airlines will ‘match’ status with that of a competitor upon application, usually to airlines outside of any alliance that the airline used to match status with belongs to. This enables business travellers particularly to switch their travel more easily from one carrier to another (e.g. when the traveller’s employer switches carriers due to a new travel contract being signed). It does so by maintaining equivalent elite benefits with the new airline, without the need for time to pass whilst the traveller 'earns’ the benefits; this also has the side effect of retaining elite benefits with the previous airline, in order that one does not have to be given up for the other to allow for a more gradual transition.
A status challengecan be an often unpublicized offer to accrue a certain amount of flying within a certain very short timeframe (usually 90 days) to receive elite status. The chosen or lesser status may or may not be given immediately if it can be seen that travel has previously been booked (particularly travel that is non-refundable), otherwise nothing until the challenge is officially completed. A fee for a challenge may also be charged.
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