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Screw Frequent Flyer Programs
April 21, 2016 -- I gotta go to Chicago next week and, without even knowing it, I was kicking the final vestiges of airline loyalty to the metaphoric curb.
I booked United Airlines, but only one way from Newark. Screw worrying about my MileagePlus balance. I booked American Airlines, but only one way back from O'Hare. Screw worrying about my AAdvantage balance.
I paid to fly first class and the total price was $520 roundtrip. No worries about Saturday stays or roundtrips, either. Just $520 roundtrip up front. Screw worrying about elite-status upgrades.
If I have time to hit a club before my Newark departure--and given the vagaries of TSA and PreCheck, I probably will--I'll use a United Club pass I got with my Chase United Explorer credit card. Screw airline loyalty. If I have time to hit a club at O'Hare before my departure on the return, I'll use an American Admirals club and gain entry using a Citi credit card. Screw club memberships.
Even while I was booking my Chicago flights, organizing hotels and setting up appointments, Delta Air Lines dropped that interesting promotion with extraordinarily cheap business class awards to Europe. I scored three to Rome in October for a total of 315,000 miles. I moved American Express Membership Rewards points into my SkyMiles account, which I cleaned out last year when Delta hid its award charts. Screw SkyMiles and the arrogant C-suiters at Delta who run it.
The airlines and their misnamed frequency programs stopped being loyal to you and me years ago. It's taken us a while, but, as we discussed last November, it's time to stop being loyal to them.
Even without meaning to this week, I saw how easy it is. We don't need to be loyal to airlines anymore because they give us nothing to which we should be loyal.
What have we traditionally wanted in return for our loyalty to an airline and its frequent flyer program? Upgrades, of course. Award seats, of course. And those small bits of recognition that come with flying tens of thousands of miles each year on one carrier.
The airlines won't give us those things anymore. They've shown us that over and over and over again in the last few years.
They'd rather sell the upgrades and/or they've lowered the price of first-class enough so that it's a reasonable buy. Most of the perks you can get with elite status can also be purchased for the price of an annual fee of a credit card. Award seats? You can get 'em with points you've racked up with credit cards. Pick the right credit card and you'll get club membership bundled into the deal, too.
Screw the frequent flyer programs. The airlines have stripped the value out of them and now sell almost all of their purported benefits à la carte. When you add it all up, you'll find that it costs you more to stay loyal to an airline than the price you'd pay to buy the perks and privileges on the open market.
This I find personally disorienting. I started flying on business in 1975, six years before the era of frequent flyer programs began. That means 35 of my 40 years on the road have been plotting and scheming and strategizing to extract the most value and the best perks from frequency plans in exchange for my airline loyalty.
Now it's like I'm that novice, 22-year-old business traveler again. I pick price and schedule and don't worry about what airline it is. I do what's good for me and I don't worry about being loyal or my balances or how many segments I need to get to elite status. If I can have my hair back and can find an Eastern Airlines flight bag to use as my carry-on, I can turn back time. I even think I have an old AT&T phone card and my Olivetti portable typewriter around somewhere ...
This I also find professionally inexplicable. Frequent flyer programs are the only thing the U.S. carriers have created in the deregulated era that built loyalty. They helped turn a commodity--an airline seat--into a differentiated product. At the dawn of deregulation, frequent flyers gave airlines a 30-minute window. If an airline didn't have a flight in that window, we flew someone else. At the height of the frequency programs, frequent flyers would wait hours, or take odd routings, to stay loyal.
Yet the airlines are junking this singular advantage in exchange for ... what? A few dollars of incremental revenue? The billions they beat from credit card issuers, who are, themselves, beginning to wonder whether being in bed with airlines can still be profitable? The dubious claim that they are geniuses by selling each traveler an à la carte menu of upcharges and extra fees?
Screw them. In the end, airlines always destroy what has served them best. They don't want your loyalty? Fine. Do what's good for you.
Buy price and schedule. Get perks from your credit cards or your class of service. Use your credit cards wisely to pile up the points and then move them where they do you, not the airlines, the most good.
For me, there's also an irony here. I remember as clearly as if it were yesterday when my relationship with frequent flyer programs began.
I was checking in for a flight home from O'Hare in 1981. Rght there on the podium was a stack of little white cards. United was launching a promotion--the cards didn't say what--and they wanted you to be a part of it. Those cards, of course, were solicitations for what would, weeks later, be called Mileage Plus.
So it's fitting that what started for me in Chicago is ending for me in Chicago. Screw frequent flyer programs. They've had their run. From now on, I do what's good for me.
Anyone want to join me on a trip to search for my lost hair? I'm sure it's somewhere. We'll fly whatever airline offers the best combination of price and schedule.
Screw the frequent flyer programs. I'm loyal to my hair.
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