In October, a two-line recommendation buried on Page 35 of a report commissioned by the United Kingdom’s Committee on Climate Change garnered disproportionate attention in the world of frequent fliers.
“Introduce a ban on air miles and frequent flier loyalty schemes that incentivize excessive flying,” it suggested.
Message boards and blogs that serve points-obsessed, platinum-status-seeking travelers lit up. “Air miles should be axed to deter frequent fliers, advises report,” blared a headline in The Guardian.
But then, in December, hordes of passengers did what they do every year: took cross-country or transoceanic flights for little purpose other than maintaining elite status (and thus, access to lounges and upgrades) on their chosen airline for 2020. Many proudly posted about the deals on message boards or used #mileagerun and #statusrun hashtags to show off their business-class digs on Instagram.
At a time when the airline industry is bending over backward to be — or at least seem to be — concerned about climate change, can airline companies still justify loyalty programs that would seem to encourage people to fly more?
JetBlue declared in January that it will be carbon neutral for domestic flights by July. Last month, Delta said it was committing $1 billion to become carbon neutral. Dutch carrier KLM’s Fly Responsibly campaign asks potential customers, “Could you take the train instead?” — the equivalent of a Coke ad suggesting, “Why not try tap water?” Airlines are buying more efficient aircraft, experimenting with biofuels, and advocating more efficient air-traffic-control systems to reduce idling on the runway and circling before descent. And then, of course, there are carbon offsets, the controversial method by which travelers or carriers support projects designed to reduce their carbon footprint to make up for their share of jet fuel emissions.
But where almost all airlines draw the line is to stop encouraging people to fly. Carriers continue to partner with banks, for example, which then flood mailboxes real and virtual with offers of 50,000 to 100,000 airline points for signing up for a credit card. From a travel enthusiast’s point of view, that’s a nearly free international flight; for a climate change activist, it’s an unconscionable incentive to pollute the planet.
Projections from all quarters show the number of air passengers will double in the next 15 to 20 years. Industry leaders have argued (often in private but occasionally in public) that since aviation accounts for only 2 to 4 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, it makes more sense to focus on reducing emissions where it’s easier. Electric airplanes are a long way off, and high-speed rails don’t cross oceans, but you can far more easily switch your home heating system to solar and eat veggie burgers instead of beef. Climate activists say the difficulty of replacing air travel is all the more reason to reduce it.
Some see status runs as an obvious — if somewhat symbolic — place to start. “Mileage runs may be tiny on a global climate change impact sort of level,” said Richard Carmichael, the author of the climate change report and a researcher at Imperial College in London, “but it’s the most grotesque kind of behavior you can imagine, the worst behavior done for no reason rather than you’re rewarded for doing it.”
And yet otherwise environmentally conscious consumers continue to do it. Jared Bierbach, an environmental protection specialist for the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., said he was concerned about the impact of travel. He does not own a car and said he and his colleagues work hard to reduce unnecessary work trips. But as an enthusiastic traveler in his personal life, he made a status run to Barcelona for the weekend last December rather than give up platinum status on American Airlines for 2020. “It was about exactly the right amount of miles,” he said. “To me it was very worth it. I’ve gotten upgraded a lot and value being able to board first.”
As for the environmental cost of his status run? “It did not cross my mind at all,” he said. “That’s probably something I’ll think about now.”
In December, Albert Hsieh made two cross-country round-trip flights to maintain his status on Alaska Airlines: a weekend flight from San Francisco to New York to visit friends and a quick trip from San Francisco to Boston. Really quick: He had a lobster roll at Stephanie’s, an airport restaurant he’d been wanting to try, and flew back in the same airplane. Mr. Hsieh, 33, writes the JetAlbert blog and advises private clients on how best to collect and use points. “I’m deeply interested in flying, so it didn’t feel out of the norm,” he said. “It was more enjoyable than less.” And, like so many other frequent fliers, it’s part of his job to travel.
He hadn’t really considered whether it was a waste of jet fuel. “Yeah, that’s a great point,” he said. But he added that he felt comfortable flying with Alaska, a carrier he admired for being vocal about sustainability, and that he believes it is the role of the government and industry, not of consumers, to push toward carbon neutrality.
The mileage run is dying
Mileage runs are now on the decline as airlines move toward rewarding customers based on the amount they spend rather than the number of miles they fly. Carriers may make money from mileage-run flights, but many see them as a hack for those who don’t fly enough — or spend enough — to merit higher status.
“I wouldn’t say the mileage run is completely dead, but it’s on life support,” said Scott Mayerowitz, executive editorial director of The Points Guy, a travel site that gained prominence as a go-to publication of frequent fliers and award cravers. “The traditional mileage run was that you found a really cheap $200 to $300 ticket to Europe and you were rewarded on distance and nothing else. Those days are gone.”
The loyalty industry defends programs by saying that expanding the number of passengers overall is not the point. “I would argue that it doesn’t increase overall flying. What it does is it increases your affinity to one brand,” said Erin Murray, vice president of marketing at Points, which works with dozens of loyalty programs around the world, “and perhaps a willingness to spend more to take it, which is also good for the airlines.”
She noted that her company also works with airlines to allow customers who are approaching next-tier status to pay for it without hopping on wasteful flights. “This is one of the key objectives that keeps coming up over and over the past couple years; how do we reduce the occurrence of mileage runs while still building loyalty and assuring they can reach tier status.”
Mark Ross-Smith founded a company called Loyalty Data that has a similar objective, using a model to determine how much specific travelers might pay for the next status and offer it to them, eliminating the need for mileage runs altogether, in a win-win-win for the customer, the company and the climate.
It’s up for debate whether the impact of loyalty programs is significant or just symbolic. Volodymyr Bilotkach, an economist specializing in the aviation industry at the Singapore Institute of Technology, says that, in theory, doling out countless points that can be cashed in on flights should increase the overall number of passengers, though we can’t know how many people used points for flights they would have paid for anyway.
But over all, he says that loyalty programs make up an insignificant piece of the airline emissions puzzle. “I believe that all the award travel and these mileage or status runs would collectively be 1 to 2 percent of the total, or with award travel could be a bit more,” he said, adding that much of it would fill otherwise empty seats. “I don’t think the airlines have to schedule extra flights because of that.”
The very existence of status tiers and the endless chatter they engender about upgrades and comparative luxuries may also contribute to the demand for business- and first-class sections, whose very existence would seem to increase jet fuel consumption. (Airplanes without business-class sections carry far more passengers per flight and thus, at least in theory, burn less jet fuel per passenger.) Airlines encourage class envy, offering incentives to travel bloggers and other influencers to show off the wonders of the business- and first-class cabins.
In one video, the YouTube superstar Casey Neistat gets upgraded to a $21,000 first-class private cabin on Emirates. “This is caviar,” he says, holding up a plate he ordered off the complimentary, any-time-you-want-it first-class menu. “If you don’t know, caviar is fish eggs.” From an environmental perspective, it’s more or less like taking a Hummer along a high-speed rail route. The video has over 71 million views.
Mr. Neistat did not respond to multiple messages requesting comment.
Encouraging flying is the message
Sophia Mendelsohn, JetBlue’s head of sustainability, said the focus should not be on the reasons people fly. “Mileage-run flights aside, most people are on an airline because they need to be,” she said. “The climate doesn’t care if you flew on a loyalty program or not. The incremental increase in flying is dwarfed by the industry’s growth across the globe.” The focus instead should be on reducing airlines’ per-passenger footprint, she said, as JetBlue’s initiatives aim to do.
Furthermore, airline representatives and loyalty experts all note that fewer and fewer miles are being spent on air travel, as the cost in miles of purchasing a flight has gone up consistently in recent years, and airlines are increasingly providing nonflight options for spending your miles on things like gift cards or iPhones.
That’s all good news, according to Dr. Carmichael, the author of the British report, but it misses the broader point. Regardless of how small the measurable, direct impact of additional flights caused by loyalty programs, their indirect cost is high. He said they reward people for flying, the worst possible single action you can take for climate change. “To get anywhere near the pollution of a flight, you’d have to continuously be eating hamburgers across the Atlantic,” he said. (You’d actually have to eat hundreds.)
Anti-frequent flier programs
Dr. Carmichael’s report actually has a potentially more significant recommendation than restructuring loyalty programs: an “Air Miles Levy,” or flight tax based on how much an individual has flown in the last, say, three years. It is, in essence, the opposite of a frequent-flier program: the more you fly, the higher the penalty. He believes the measure would have strong public support, as the taxes would fall almost entirely on a small percentage of people. “Families would not be penalized for an annual holiday in the sun,” the report says.
One rare area of agreement is that frequent flier programs can be tweaked to promote environmentally conscious behavior. “I think it’s crucial we address this climate crisis,” said Iain Pringle, an expert with New World Loyalty, a consultancy. “But I think that loyalty programs are being seen as a tool for bad when actually I think it could be a tool for good, and it’s in everyone’s interest to have them be a tool for good.”
What that might look like could vary — Ms. Mendelsohn notes that members of JetBlue’s program can spend TrueBlue points on carbon offsets when they fly, a minor step. Dr. Carmichael would like airlines to prohibit customers from using their rewards points on flying and instead restrict them to low-carbon goods and services like e-bikes and gym memberships.
Seth Kugel is a travel writer and the author of “Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious,” now out in paperback.
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