With a tip of the hat toward the (former) Siskel & Ebert format, I saw something that one of my favorite business travel writers did recently and thought I’d give my two cents on the issue. That writer? Joe Brancatelli.
His column dated May 17 dealt with National Transportation Week and he allowed himself a few one-sentence solutions for what’s ailing our air-transport system. One of his suggestions in particular caught my attention. Here’s his point-of-view on a topic dear to the hearts of us all. My point-of-view on the same topic follows his.
End Frequent-Flyer Programs
There are any number of real problems with frequent-flyer programs. For starters, they come perilously close to bribery. Even if we assume free tickets and upgrades are “rebates,” as the airlines claim, the carriers intentionally offer the rebate to the wrong party. Think about it: If your company buys your travel, then shouldn’t your company be getting the upgrades and free tickets that result from the purchases? Why are you being financially rewarded by the supplier? Even if you are self-employed, shouldn’t there be a tax liability for the “rebates” the airlines give you? You certainly deducted the full value of the business trips you took to earn those rebates. Worst of all, frequent-flyer programs depress competition. Eliminating them would unleash a torrent of new initiatives aimed at winning the business of business travelers. The price of first- and business-class tickets would plummet, in-flight services would improve, and the airlines would start concentrating on tangible benefits like seat comfort, on-time performance, and baggage handling. JB
Continue Frequent-Flyer Programs
There are any number of reasons why frequent flyer programs must continue. For starters, they provide entertainment for an otherwise dreary business. Just as General Motors and Pillsbury have found great use with rebates over the years for products that simply aren’t all that sexy to market, frequent flyer programs serve the same purpose for travelers. I’m trying to imagine a flight with just safety instructions on the video monitor, instead of glamorously filmed commercials for partners of the frequent flyer program. And imagine flying six times a month and being forced to read the same in-flight magazine instead of being able to pore through your latest frequent flyer statement. And imagine boasting to your seatmate that you only have $12,645 in your savings account when in fact you could easily boast of being a multi-mile millionaire. Gee, some conversation that will be. Imagine flying off to Duluth again for the start of another consulting gig when all you have to look forward to is returning to Duluth eight more times. Remember when you could bundle up and mentally see yourself on the beach in Hawaii when that job was done — using miles and points of course. And Joe, you really think that without these programs airfares will be lower? I think your beloved Brooklyn Dodgers have a better chance of returning to the city by the city than to see lower airfares because there aren’t frequent flyer programs. Let’s remember that this isn’t a really smart industry. Heck, the Board of United Airlines gave Jim Goodwin a 47 percent raise last year just for suggesting that he could be “King of the World” with his silly idea to split a pay out with Steve Wolf and acquire US Airways. That deal had nothing to do with frequent flyer programs, but it sure does make you wonder what these guys will do when there aren’t miles around to distract them.
And better in-flight services? Joe, you better sit down and take a deep breath. I think you are going to need a doctor when you realize that Starbuck’s coffee is as close to better food service as you will get. Without frequent flyer programs you will be sentenced to a life of flying coach, never even coming close to the “upgrade” of food service you so aptly deserve. With the miles thing in place, at least you have a chance of using your cloth napkin as a bib. Other benefits? Remember the days when you actually had a chance to secure that overhead space for your briefcase when you had early boarding privileges because of your frequent flyer status? Glad you can remember Joe, because that’s all you’ll have — memories.
Joe, while it is easy for me to go on and on about why these programs will and must continue, I’ll leave you with this final thought — Why don’t you serve as an example to all of us? Go off to Chicago and outside of United’s world headquarters, set your Mileage Plus card ablaze and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” Then shunt yourself off to a life of living without these programs. I’d like to see if anyone could really do it. For that, I’d give you two thumbs up.