Christopher Elliott on the reality of frequent flier programs

Few people know the airline industry as well as Chris Elliott – he’s a regular contributor on MSNBC, The Washington Post (and Gadling) – so when I came across one of his columns on frequent flier programs, I paid close attention to what he had to say.

In his article, Elliott makes a very valid point that airline loyalty really only works one way. Millions of people work hard to earn airline miles, only to discover that the airline doesn’t really plan to reward them for all that hard work, or decides to cut the value of their points before they are able to use them.

Now, this may be a minor inconvenience to people with only one or two flights a year, but there are large groups of business travelers that stay ferociously loyal to a single airline or hotel chain, without ever bothering to check out the competition. I’ll call these people the “Up In The Air” crowd – after the George Clooney movie about the life of a very frequent flier. There is one thing a lot of these fliers have in common – something Elliott doesn’t make mention of – most of them don’t pay for their own tickets.

In the frequent flier world, there are thousands of fliers with millions of miles banked in their accounts, they travel with their platinum cards around their neck, know all the tricks, and obtain top tier status year after year. They show this loyalty because their airline of choice rewards them with a couple of convenient perks. But no perk is as important to them as the well stocked mileage account. With a rich mileage account, the business traveler can fly on the company dime during the week, and use their miles for leisure trips in their spare time. However – once you start living this life, you start losing track of the true price of travel.The blind loyalty to airline programs mentioned by Elliott is related to this – if your plane tickets don’t come out of your own pocket, you stop caring about price, competition and alternatives. When someone else picks up the tab, why bother finding a cheaper way to get from A to B. Airlines know this – and their frequent flier programs are designed to take full advantage of it.

The most brand loyal people are often the ones that earn their miles the easiest way possible – I even know people who use their personal credit card for company wide purchases – earning millions of miles without taking a single trip. Of course those people will defend brand loyalty – that brand loyalty lets them travel the world without spending a dime of their own money. Of course, there are also companies with a corporate policy on airline choice – but even those companies will force an employee to pick something other than their usual airline if the price is right.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I also know people that don’t have the luxury of a corporate expense account (myself included) – and these are usually the people that try not to bank any kind of “magical number” in their mileage account. Wise travelers spend their miles, keeping a limited balance for last minute trips. These travelers are the ones that don’t see the value of their accounts cut in half when the airline introduces new award levels, or adds new redemption fees.

The article takes a pretty negative tone – and I don’t agree that the cons always outweigh the pros. If you know what you are doing, you take the time to shop around, use mileage runs to top off accounts, and pay close attention to dormant mileage accounts, you’ll find plenty of things to like about frequent flier programs.

So – head on over to the Washington Post to read what Elliott has to say about loyalty – (registration may be required to read the article).