If you didn’t make this year’s Freddie Awards event recently held in Los Angeles, you missed a good one. Among the most talked-about segments was a tribute to the 25th anniversary of frequent flyer programs for which InsideFlyer arranged to have three of the founding giants of the frequent flyer industry take to the stage. Rolfe Shellenberger — Manager Marketing Plans at American Airlines in 1981, Steve Grosvald — Manager of Merchandising and Promotion, United in 1981, and Bob Coggins — Marketing Manager Delta, 1981-all regaled the crowd with tales of how the whole thing got started. It turns out that only through their drive and ambition was the whole concept born. Other marketers weren’t as thrilled with the idea. But eventually, on May 1, 1981, American Airlines launched the AAdvantage program. United Mileage Plus followed days later. Interestingly, the press didn’t catch on at first. In fact, the first major article on frequent flyer programs, published in the Wall Street Journal, gave United credit for launching the idea first.
According to Bob Coggins, the first customer accounts were stored in shoeboxes. After all, this was before the advent of the PC. This was also before identification was required to fly. Bob says Delta’s first million-miler actually accrued many of his miles through family members flying in his name. Of course, no one knew that before that million-miler appeared on the cover of Delta’s in-flight magazine.
One of many magic moments caught the three of them arguing about promotions that a.) blazed the trail in terms of frequent flyer promotions, and b.) apparently ruffled a few feathers back in the day.
As part of this celebration, a new award was unveiled unveiled: the Lifetime Achievement Award. The three men who had just entertained the audience with insightful and hilarious tales of the early days served as presenters. In all, four Lifetime Achievement Awards were presented, to the only four programs that got their start in 1981 and that still exist today — American AAdvantage, United Mileage Plus, Delta Frequent Flyer/SkyMiles, and Northwest WorldPerks (interestingly, all of the other programs that also began in 1981 but that are no longer around were all, in one way or another, absorbed by those that are still going strong). In a remarkable moment of past meeting present, Rolfe, Steve, Bob, and our Editor, Randy Petersen (acting on behalf of Northwest) handed-off the enormous crystal statues to the current executives in charge of each program, respectively. Ken Feldman, Vice President of Loyalty & E-Commerce, accepted the award for United; Kurt Stache, President of AAdvantage, steped up for American Airlines; Kevin Pinto, Manager-SkyTeam and Asia, was proud to take the award for Delta; and Russ Hinckley, WorldPerks General Manager, accepted on behalf of Northwest.
There is a Web cast of the evenings event available for viewing on the http://www.freddieawards.com Web site.