60 Seconds with Mike Boynton, Delta Air Lines (retired)

60 Seconds with Mike Boynton, Delta Air Lines (retired)

Among those celebrating the 25th anniversary of frequent flyer programs is the Delta Frequent Flyer/SkyMiles program. We tracked down the then Manager of Marketing Programs, Mike Boynton, who fills us in on their early days.

InsideFlyer
Was Flying Colonel the precursor of frequent flyer programs?
Mike Boynton
It sure was. Flying Colonel started in the late 40s. It was strictly recognition of the top frequent flyers.

IF
Did you use Flying Colonel as your base of customers? Did you auto-enroll them? Who were the first members?
Mike
We introduced the program Sept. 1, 1981. We recognized the initial Flying Colonel membership but we did put it out to all our customers. We did rely on Flying Colonel to be the core membership. The first three months of 1981 we had about 98,000 members.

IF
Did people start to cash in right away?
Mike
They had to hold on to their flight coupons. When they had 40 flight segments, you got 1,000 miles apiece, and that gave you a domestic ticket. They sent those into the SkyMiles headquarters. We entered that into an off-line database.

IF
What was the train of thought going around at Delta about starting a frequent flyer program?
Mike
AAdvantage influenced us, and our customers wanted to know when we would begin. We did wonder if the program would survive, but the growth of the program convinced us. It was an overwhelming customer response.

IF
Did anyone wonder why this was so overwhelming?
Mike
Delta was an airline that had been successful for many decades in the operation and the running of the business. Not having that many marketing programs out there, it was very much a protected environment. Now you had this marketplace where you’re forced to be creative. So we as an airline business found ourselves in a new era and quickly responded to that.

IF
Did Delta spend a lot of time thinking about what they would call this?
Mike
It already had a name when I came into it, Delta Frequent Flyer. That term was used in a generic sense, but we felt it had an application — it was recognized. It did not change until the mid-1990s.

IF
Are there any stories you can recall that would have uniqueness?
Mike
Let me give you a recap. We quickly saw in the beginning that rather than using shoeboxes [to store paperwork], we needed a better way to track customer activity. We went from a manual to an online database. We had to build a staff-there were only temporary workers. We had to hire and train staff, we had to create the database. After the database was up and running we had to enter all the ticket copies of hundreds of thousands of customers that were mailed to us. We had stacks to mail 8 feet high and down the hall.
But after we created the foundation and validated where we wanted to go with the program, we wondered how we could differentiate ourselves from the other programs. We opened up the program in late 1981 to partners.

IF
Was it Frequent Flyer that started you thinking about alliances?
Mike
Most of the foreign carriers did not have these types of programs. They wanted to build a relationship with U.S. carriers. It allowed us to complement each other. I would think that yes, it was an early forerunner to the alliance we have today.

IF
You talk about growing your partner base — was it difficult for you to explain what a frequent flyer program was?
Mike
Once the key partners saw the membership growth, they were quick believers that this program would work.

IF
I remember Wall Street saying that the programs would cost too much. Was this a concern?
Mike
In the beginning we had no capacity controls. Then we did introduce capacity controls that we had to account for. This is certainly not free — you earn these awards. It is an earned award. We allocate a tremendous about of seats to our customers.

IF
Where there a couple of defining moments in the early days that stand out?
Mike
When we went from manual to automated. In the beginning it was just so overwhelming. We said to mail in all the flight coupons and got hundreds of thousands in the mail, and had to deal with them one at a time. And we did it. It was a lot of hours and a lot of effort. It was a test for the entire staff.

IF
Delta started something in 1988 — the triple mile promotion. It was the first real success.
Mike
We decided it made a lot of sense to do the triple miles with American Express. It was indeed revolutionary. We got tremendous response from the public and other carriers. American had a quote that said, “What the heck are those guys thinking?” That was a one-year promotion. It did shock the industry.

IF
It was the first impacted promotion. Because of this it was a contingent liability. Prior to this was contingent liability a worry?
Mike
It was not a concern in the early years. But with the growth in the programs it had to change with the capacity controls.

IF
Delta was never really a follower. Delta marched to a different drummer. Was this a conscious decision?
Mike
Yes, we did it our own way. We looked at our root system and asked ourselves what changes needed to be made, and if it made sense to make some decisions. It made sense for us to differentiate what we had.

IF
What do you remember about some of your earlier customers?
Mike
We started to recognize travel patterns. Then we were able to target and design offers.

Back in the early days, it was 10,000 miles for a first-class upgrade, and you got mileage for sitting up front, so you could recoup for your segments.
In the early days you could redeem miles for Crown Room membership — it was popular.

We started service to London and Frankfurt and we added on being able to redeem your awards internationally. Then we had an around-the-world award ticket with our partners.

IF
Did the original Frequent Flyer program include international redemption?
Mike
It began about 1982.

IF
It doesn’t sound like there was any slowdown in growth.
Mike
It was steady.

IF
Do you recall your first mileage millionaire?
Mike
We did recognize the million-mile members in a special way with goodies and a special ID card. Our first mileage millionaire was late 1982 or early 1983. He was with the Harris Corporation and we met him at the gate. We put his name in the quarterly newsletter.

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