Climate Activists Have a Really Dumb Idea: Banning Frequent Flyer Programs

Environmental activists want to ban frequent flyer programs. It was a dumb idea when Christopher Elliott wanted to do it. It’s just as silly when thinking about climate.

A UK climate panel recommends people:

  • eat less meat and dairy (cow flatulance, and food consumption vs. yield)
  • start biking more (but this ignores the need to replenish calories which can exceed energy consumption used in driving and ignores that when you drive less and reduce congestion you may encourage others to drive more)
  • and end frequent flying.

“Air miles schemes should be axed” because customers take mileage runs to keep elite status and more broadly “encourage excessive flying” and people should be taxed for flying, and taxed more the more that they fly.

In other words only the wealthy should be able to afford to fly. The tax would be lighter on infrequent travelers, although they wouldn’t be able to use rewards to afford travel. By the way this is also the view of Lufthansa’s CEO because it would put his low cost competitors out of business.

The report recommends that flight ads “include information about their emissions expressed in a simple way to make people think about the impact on the climate of their trips” and that the frequent flyer tax be based on distance (United take note!).

Eliminating a rebate is just a price increase. Airlines, earning a higher rate of return from flying, will either:

  • Offer more flights, because flying is more profitable. That’s the exact opposite of climate activists would want.
  • Find other ways to rebate to customers to compete for their business. At one point, when prices were fixed (at an intentionally high level) by the Civil Aeronautics Board, the CAB discussed potential regulation of the thickness of onboard sandwiches, because carriers were finding a non-price way to compete for passenger business. This suggests banning frequent flyer programs would be unlikely to have an effect on the demand for travel.

The drive to ban reward travel confuses the average and marginal effect of flying on the environment. Saver award travel has, by definition, the lowest environmental impact of any flying. Airlines make saver inventory available when they’re flying anyway and they believe a seat won’t sell.

Most miles aren’t even earned from flying, and serve as a way of democratizing access to travel, which drives greater cultural understanding and even potentially reduces conflict across societies (which is good for the environment). Eliminating access to award travel, eliminating rebates on travel, is an elitist take which preserves access to the skies for the select few. While environmental discussions are important this is one the worst, least effective approaches to take.

(HT: Dan R.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. You should at least read the news piece you’ve linked to. This was not a report by “climate activists”. This was a report commissioned by an UK governmental department and written by a guy at Imperial College London.

  2. @Rui N – I linked to two pieces on the subject, read them both, and I stand by my characterization. This is the work of poorly thought through activism (by a government commission and a university title)

  3. Agree with @RUI N – Gary, your “hot take” has no nuance. I get it, all of us are frequent flyers and certainly want to protect miles, points, and status opportunities. The take away point of the government report (not crazy activists) is that FF status encourages people to take trips they wouldn’t only for status and miles. Eliminating mileage runs is a positive thing for the environment, that’s not negotiable or debatable. OMAAT has a similar view, but at least Lucky acknowledged the underlying positives of the report.

  4. “Climate Activists Have a Really Dumb Idea: Banning Frequent Flyer Programs”
    Well, has United Airlines pretty much just done the same thing by completely disfiguring “Mileage”Plus? 😉

  5. While I agree that banning frequent flyer programs is a stupid idea, I disagree with the idea that biking causes such an increase in food consumption so as to have a negative aggregate impact on the environment to the extent driving does directly and indirectly.

    I also lampoon the idea that shifting from driving to biking would ease so much pressure on car traffic congestion as to make a big enough difference in road traffic congestion as to increase demand to drive and thus have a negative aggregate impact on the environment to the extent driving does directly and indirectly.

    Taking marginal situations and extrapolating that to be representative of the impact of overall behavior patterns is a classic route to fallacious reasoning and unsound and invalid conclusions.

    I will say that banning frequent flyer programs is an extremely ridiculous idea on many levels. Banning such programs would even make some airline customers less loyal to any given airline and actually may encourage some such airline customers to fly more? How so? There are a segment of customers who pay the airlines too much to fly their preferred airline and end up paying what is in essence a “loyalty penalty”. Becoming more of a commodity service buyer will leave many such customers with more money to fly more as they become less likely to pay the “loyalty penalty” and retain more of their money for more discretionary flying.

    Banning meat purchase and grocery store loyalty programs are next in line? The more extreme the push is from some ideologues, the more ridiculous they look and the more they discredit their own supposed purpose. But this isn’t that far removed from the libertarian extremists who think that government regulation of private entreprise ought to be banned too.

  6. Climate Activists are really SOCIAL TERRORISTS. They have a 100% failure rate with their Hate Filled predictions.

  7. In that case they should ban frequent cruise programs, fuel rewards programs and even frequent shopper programs, and most importantly the frequent baby program, yes lets get rid of the child tax deduction/credit, since more people are the root of the climate crisis. Not so economically feasible huh?

  8. Who are all these people allegedly going on mileage runs?

    Ten years ago when you could get to the 23-month EXP for $1500, yeah. Now?

  9. toomanybooks,

    I still see people doing mileage runs, more for elite status than spendable miles but still for spendable miles too at times. But mileage runs for spendable miles is definitely no longer what it used to be, and mileage runs for elite status is increasingly a sort of fool’s errand too.

    The airlines are doing a great job of undercutting the mass appeal of the frequent flyer aspect of the frequent flyer programs, and so these climate change activists are a bit late and wasting their time aiming at what the airlines are already destroying. Those climate change activists aiming at frequent flyer programs are more or less engaging in a kind of class warfare, especially now that most of the frequent flyer benefits are increasingly but a rebate/reward for the upper most segments of the the socio-economic spectrum in a way that wasn’t true 20 or 30 years ago (or even 10 years ago). Going after airline passengers and other travellers is lazy prey for the climate activists as going after the grocery stores they need would further marginalize them.

  10. My guess is that some climate theorists got burned by some frequent flyer program. Either by devaluing miles or losing some benefit. Or maybe just some infrequent flyer that is jealous of people boarding before them or getting upgrades so they are acting out. They use weapons they have like the race card, climate shame, class envy, virtue signaling, etc. to try and control others and damage organizations they don’t like.

    The worst thing about this sort of stuff is that there are people who actually believe and support such things.

  11. As others have pointed out but worth chastising you again, these are not climate activities but academics at Imperial College London. We know that you find it overwhelming to recognize your contribution to the climate issue. Time to wake up,, don’t you have kids now?

  12. It’s fascinating that people argue that because the authors of the report are “academics”, they can’t be climate activists.

    Also, when used as an adjective it can mean:

    –theoretical or hypothetical; not practical, realistic, or directly useful

    –learned or scholarly but lacking in worldliness, common sense, or practicality.

    Seems appropriate.

  13. Gary,

    Many a man may think he has only one child and may never have more, but how are you sure that is the case and will remain the case indefinitely if it is true currently?

    Any solution to environmental problems that intrude into the sexual and procreative habits of individual persons is one solution too far and too much.

  14. Your comment about the regulated sandwiches intrigued me so I did a bit of googling and found that it really did happen (not just an urban legend) and then I found this superb quote about airline regulation from a 1975 Senate hearing on Oversight of the Civil Aeronautics Board:

    “”Prohibiting regulators from restricting competition in order to protect competitors won’t work. The Congress in the Transportation Act of 1958, wrote a clear prohibition on protecting one mode from competition of another, yet the ICC has continued to do just that. Protecting competitors and reducing competition is inherent in all economic regulation.

    In inherently competitive industries such as airlines and trucking it is vir-
    tually impossible for the regulators to eliminate competition. The best the regulators can do is to eliminate price competition and thus to hold prices up. But this simply stimulates firms to compete in non-price areas. A few years ago the international airlines engaged in a sandwich war to attract passengers. More recently in the U.S. we have witnessed a seating war, with airlines competing to offer the most comfortable .seats in coach class. Last fall there was a free drink war. Since rates are identical due to CAB regulation, airlines compete by purchasing the most up-to-date equipment and phasing out older and slower equipment long before it would be obsolete under a more rational system. No scheme of regulation that permits management to manage the firms can eliminate non-price competition. There are an infinite number of ways firms can compete. As a result of the non-price competition, most of the profits originally generated by high rates are dissipated.

    In addition to the inevitability of non-price competition, which tends to erode
    the profits that the regulators are attempting to guarantee he industry, the firms compete for regulatory favors. If a route to Hawaii or Florida is profitable, firms can and will spend millions in legal fees and legal maneuvers attempting to win the franchise or to block others from securing the franchise. For example, suppose that a firm is earning one million in clear profits a year from a route. It is then worth spending up to a million a year to block the introduction of competitors. To the would-be competitor it may be worth half a million if he enters. As a result the potential entrant will be willing to spend large sums to secure a license, perhaps as much as two and a half million dollars. The entire profit on such a route can be dissipated in this competition for licenses.

    In many ways regulation is the worst of all worlds for everyone. While the
    regulators try to guarantee profits, non-price competition and legal competition work to eliminate the profits. Consumers pay high prices but the regulated firms don’t reap the benefits. Costs are inflated; profits are no greater than they would be without regulation; and prices are higher.

    Thomas G. Moore, Senior Fellow, The Hoover Institution, Stanford University

  15. It seems to me that the first clause in the headline contains some redundancy.

    Do they have anything but?.

  16. I don’t agree with banning FF programs, but something that addresses the climate impacts of aviation is reasonable.

    I’d prefer a carbon tax on the fuel itself to encourage innovation.

    Gary, you should address this in your blog in a serious way instead of stupid “hot takes,” on a serious issue lest your daughter come to realize your moral cowardice.

  17. The idea is counterproductive because it the bad will generated far outstrips any CO2 reduction benefit, but…

    Eliminating a rebate is a price increase, unless the airlines also reduce their ticket prices.

    The cost of administering the frequent flier programs are baked into ticket costs.

    Miles through credit card spending are baked into the prices of the goods and service we purchase with those credit cards.

    Frequent flier programs through credit cards and our ticket rebates are a roundabout way that we’re prepurchasing our travel at a discount. Sometimes not even at a discount.

  18. Ha, ha, good luck trying to apply the “science” of economics to the “science” of global warming. The former is alchemy and the latter is religion.

  19. Yeah, I have to agree with Gary. FF programs are just an element of price discovery. In a world of no FF programs the prices would just come down to reflect the rebate in the form of lower purchase price. The impact on flight consumption would be nil. Now, if you tax it, you’ll get less of it and achieve what they are after. But, that assumes other carbon emitting alternatives don’t just pop up to replace the desired travel. So it is stupid.

  20. There is no “science” behind economics, but there is actual science behind global warming. A small number of people (the GOP for example) still argue about how much human behavior contributes to it. But we know that flying does.

    Argue away on the merits of banning frequent flier programs, but don’t question the legitimacy of climate change as a real thing. It’s embarrassing.

  21. To me, CO2 pollution is no different than CFC pollution and NOX pollution. We were olbiterating the Ozone and then we stopped. We were choking on smog in our cities and they we stopped.

    Unfortunately there is low-hanging fruit that we could start now and would really help that we’re not doing:
    – Replace fossil fuel power plants with hydro and nuclear
    – Electrify the railways
    – Invest more in batteries and renewables

    Are there waste stream issues with nuclear? Yes
    Are there local ecology issues with hydro? Yes
    Are there natural resource issues with batteries? Yes

    Right now our politics is somewhat captured by fossil fuel agents. Mostly a bunch of short-term thinking. Same problem in Europe, Asia and the Americas.

    There are authoritarian vs liberal and centralized vs decentralized strategies, but our institutions are paralyzed by big oil money, so nothing can change.

  22. if all humans would just die off then climate change will stop and we can save earth. there was no climate change before mankind.

  23. @ GUWonder — You are certainly correct that any trivial increase in flights caused by “mileage runs” is a thing of the past due to changes in the way elite status is earned in those programs. And honestly, there never was any increase in flights because mileage runners were obviously buying the cheapo “unsold” inventory — seats that would have gone empty on the same number of flights!
    That said, I’m not really sure facts matter much in this debate. The “climate activists” who are making this argument aren’t doing it on “facts.” Rather, their behavior is clearly one of a religious fervor. If this “worship Mother Earth” religion continues to gain converts, they’re could be limits on flying, even irrational moves like banning frequent flyer programs. If the fervor remains more of a cult, no limits will be imposed. Given the current decline in the West of traditional religion, and the continued growth of Mother Earth worship, I don’t think this outcome is easy to predict. That said, the elite seem to like to fly so maybe this new religion will find something else to target.

  24. Gary, I have a real question for you. I say that so you know I am not trying to be glib or obnoxious, just trying to understand your reasoning.

    Setting aside the frequent flyer program issue, you seem to suggest that increasing of biking is a bad thing because it will make people eat more and actually cause more people on the road. How are you arriving there or am I misinterpreting that? Everything I’ve seen shows that biking helps decrease driving, even when causing less congestion on the road. Mostly because some people will need to drive no matter what(distance, health etc.) whereas some people can bike to work, errands etc., and, if they do, it means they decrease driving.
    Anecdotally, I find this means that the people choose not to work out separately as they would which would mean there is no increase in calories beyond what they normally would have. Is there a study that has measured the relative caloric increase from biking and it’s connection to carbon emissions? You are always well-researched, so I am thinking you got this from somewhere sound.

    I am really just trying to wrap my head around that. I have never heard the argument that decreasing driving leads to worse impacts elsewhere. I would love to see where the information is coming from as it would definitely affect my decisions regarding biking. I am lucky enough to be able to bike, but usually walk to work and around my city. I’ve never considered that as a harmful impact before.

  25. @Beth – I’m making a couple of points. I am not arguing that more biking is bad! I’m saying that we live in a really complicated world and simple suggestions like “ban frequent flyer programs” don’t always give us the simple result we want.

    When you bike you burn more calories that get replaced, consume more food, which has to come from somewhere. Meat, which encourages cow production and associated methane gas? Food that was transported from around the world involving energy?

    In heavily congested areas there are already people choosing not to drive because of that congestion, take cars off the road and there are more potential drivers in reserve who replace them.

    Is it a perfect substitution effect? That’s not my argument. Just that systems are complex.

  26. I love all the arguments for the idea that academics can’t also be activists. Two things can be true at the same time. There is a lot of science activism out there right now (and not necessarily in regards to climate change).

  27. Gary, I think you may have forgotten that frequent flyer programs lock in customers. Thus limiting competition. Without them airlines just might have to compete with each other for our business.

  28. Make it a user pays system: no reasonable person would argue against compulsory carbon offsets for tickets. It might add a few hundred to J or F, more modest sum for Y. Plus a further charge for those wanting beef.
    The days of the deniers are coming to an end; resistance is futile.

  29. @ Gary Leff

    Highly knowledgeable on frequent flyer matters you may be, but a thought leader on other matters, such as that at hand, you certainly are not! Just as you have written drivel about Australia in other articles…

    It is immediately apparent that you haven’t even bothered to read the report in question, rather cherry-picked your titbits to sensationalise from a third-party source. Lazy. Bad practice for a writer. And pathetic for somebody who claims to present ideas as a thought leader.

    You could easily link to the report itself in your article. It is freely available on the UK government body website, not a big file or too many pages. Too hard for you, Gary to do the basic work. Why not give your readers the option to self educate?

    You could have facilitated the readers’ understanding by extracting some key quotes – you know, the report objective, the key lines on aviation, etc. Nope. Too hard for Gary.

    Your deliberately sensational click bait title designed to stir up the right wing denialists is hopelessly off the mark.

    The report was commissioned for the UK Government. It is a mainstream government – not a pamphlet by an activist or advocacy group.

    Now make some attempt at context. No, that’s not for Gary. Too busy spinning the yarn. Stirring up the Trumpettes to generate site traffic.

    It is just one part of the UK government’s 2050 net zero goal, a LEGAL COMMITMENT for the UK government.

    It targets ideas on how you might drive behaviours.

    There are about 50 recommendations.

    The frequent flyer recommendation (a couple of lines) actually targets programs “that stimulate demand”. Read it. The original. Carefully. No, Gary, can’t be bothered to read the wording of the original document and respect the nuances. Too busy jumping the media bandwagon to offer any “original” position.

    Did you think to reassure your snowflake yanky readers that this report is about UK policy and nothing to do with them?

    Your critical aside on riding instead of driving is so logically infantile as to be dumbfoundingly stupid. A few clues. Cycling to work reduces congestion and any number of associated costs, reduces a reliance on fossil fuels (what you call “gas” in your country), etc.

    Still confused? Go read the equivalent article on the UK website, Head for Points to see how it can be done in a balanced and intelligent manner…

  30. Look, I get that libertarians’ favorite pastime is coming up with tortured, fantastical explanations for why commonsense reforms will *actually* have the effect opposite to their aims. But at the point that you’re arguing that biking will increase air pollution (because “calories”) and that people traveling less will hurt the environment (because it will… increase war?), you miiiiiight just want to take a step back and watch yourself saying what you’re saying and question whether or not you’ve become completely divorced from reality.

  31. Oh well, let’s begin by taxing the living hell out of carriers forcing customers on married segments. (I’d start with American). Then we can talk about nonsense like mileage runs. What year is it again and who on earth is still doing it in this day and age?

  32. @Paolo, I’m not a denier or unreasonable, yet I WOULD argue against adding $$$ to my ticket, paid or otherwise. Believe me I would! And every other reasonable person I know would too. Not even mentioning all unreasonable people who would be even less cooperating. What I would support, though, is adding a small tax to EVERY air passenger passing through any airport in the world. Would more money really help, though?

  33. I’m very glad I don’t live in the UK or Europe where the climate alarmism will basically send them back to the stone age.

  34. @Gary Leff
    I appreciate you answering my questions. I also agree that systems are complex and certainly banning frequent flyer programs would cause other, unforseen issues, but I really think we all need to start doing something, and that includes looking at our food sources, transportation, and travel.

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