How Obi Wan Kenobi Inspired Airline Executives to Lie

The median customer doesn’t keep up with changes to frequent flyer programs. They only really pay attention when it’s time to redeem their miles. They either have a good experience or a bad experience.

Having a good experience does matter — customers who successfully redeem their miles become more engaged in the program than they were prior to the redemption.

That was a bit of a surprise to the programs — when they first started it was common to give customers a mileage bonus when they cashed out their account. The last thing an airline wanted was a customer, previously locked into the airline because of their mileage balance, to get down to zero and become a free agent.

But the 5000 mile bonus for getting down below that much became a thing of the past because airlines realized that customers who redeemed stayed customers and even increased their loyalty.

Still, customers don’t necessarily know what a good redemption means other than “I got the seat I was looking for and it was easy.”

Sure, it may have cost 60,000 Delta miles to go to Florida but isn’t that just what it costs? And availability is whatever the airline’s website says it is, of course. These are things that people who aren’t reading this are likely to believe.

Or so airline executives hope. It’s also an opening for the competition, though, Capital One built its credit card business on dissatisfaction with airline redemptions.

But even David Spade just said award seats aren’t available (“NO”), not “the award will cost you 360,000 Skypesos.”

The bet, then, remains that customers don’t have a sufficient frame of reference – that they don’t invest in learning the details of the program – such that plausible statements from airline executives about changes to their programs will ring true.

The current crop of frequent flyer program executives grew up on Star Wars. They remember Alec Guinness utilizing the Jedi Mind trick.

When Ben Kenobi approached Mos Eisley with Luke Skywalker and the droids, he had to confront Imperial Storm Troopers that were searching for them.

Stormtrooper: Let me see your identification.
Obi-Wan: [with a small wave of his hand] You don’t need to see his identification.
Stormtrooper: We don’t need to see his identification.
Obi-Wan: These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.
Stormtrooper: These aren’t the droids we’re looking for.
Obi-Wan: He can go about his business.
Stormtrooper: You can go about your business.
Obi-Wan: Move along.
Stormtrooper: Move along… move along.

You see, the mostly men running these programs went to see Star Wars as kids and they could just feel the force inside of them as they walked out of the theatre. And the lesson they learned was that the Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded.

And deep down they all wanted to be jedi masters. They grew up, they may not have gotten to fly the Millenium Falcon but they did go into aviation.

And some of them even went to business school. Corporate speak meets The Force.

So “cuts” and “devaluations” become “enhancements.” Instead of doing things to “make more money” the reason for any change is “to better meet the needs of our customers in a changing marketplace.” Usually the changes are the result of “listening to our customers” and will make it possible to “provide greater flexibility.”

Whereas an older generation might have known George Orwell, this one knows Obi Wan Kenobi. If they just use the force, customers – like storm troopers — will believe them.

The force, it seems, is strongest over at Delta where the pile of force they’re shoveling actually includes the claim that they can’t legally notify their members in advance when they’re going to start charging more miles for award tickets (even though they have at times done so in the past, and haven’t notified the SEC of these alleged violations of law).

Deep down they’re hoping their jedi mind trick skills are as good as old Ben’s. If they tell us it is an enhancement, enough of us will believe it.

But in the end we mustn’t forget the lessons of Return of the Jedi. In its happy ending, the Jedi do not control the galaxy and Luke never even formally becomes one. And yet the people and ewoks both rejoice.

Remember that, Delta (and others) before pulling the trigger on those revenue-based programs and telling us they’re enhancements based on customer feedback meant to give us the flexibity we’ve been asking for.

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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, 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. The regrettable part is that United’s current CEO sees Delta as a model for a business airline. What I think may happen to many US based frequent flyer programs is that their massive devaluations, reductions in elite benefits, and uncompetitive products relative to international airlines will reduce their loyalty, number of elites, and profits. If a person expects little benefit from the loyalty program, then search for the best product at a competitive price. Why would the savvy traveler choose First class service on a US based airline to Europe or Asia or Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, or Cathay Pacific? CX, SQ, and LH will be the best choice and value every time.

  2. As a F class frequent traveler I really cant wait for the alliances to break down and the FF programs to devalue. Please give me a reason to quite, I have been at this game far too long.
    I make so many poor personal choices based upon status and its maintenance at several carriers that I really cannot wait to fly more foreign airlines. Oh how sick I am of the tired old AA, UA, and their rotten partners like AB or most of skyteam birds. I have money to burn and I would so love to burn it and actually GET SOMETHING for it other than the same dirty napkin (with food bits) stuck in between my “regular” seat that I see is still there after oh maybe 14 months!

  3. Oh free agency will change the game, in so many unexpected ways just like it did at the MLB or the NBA. And I just can’t wait to see who is going to be really surprised. Catch up, they think they can, I got a taste of the future a few times and I know the legacies will never be able to compete.

  4. “Live long and prosper, Star Wars fan” LMAO
    Good one. @Gojo.

    Loved the Star wars Reference.
    All that was missing was a picture of Princess Leia.
    You know which one. 😉

  5. Apprapos post, Gary, since the new Star Wars RPG was released today 🙂

    Jedi indeed.

  6. What have you been smoking today? Is this some sort of notice that DL’s RBP is imminent?

  7. Gary, very good. I will never read another BS announcement from Delta again without picturing ole Obi Wan waving his hand and saying softly “its just another ENHANCEMENT for our customers’ satisfaction”. yeah freakin’ right you Jedi Masters in Atlanta……

  8. On the MileagePlus program, I’m hoping and praying Chase will “wake up” soon, do its best Yosemite Sam, and tell UA…”Now hold on there varmint!”

  9. Yup… what everyone else said. Best post EVER! Thanks for guidance through the constant and ever changing maze that is today’s FF scheme…. you’re our only hope.

  10. I’ll see you Star Wars and raise you 1984 (which all the airline execs read at some point in school; it’s all NewSpeak.

  11. My husband hates anything miles and points related. But I think even he would appreciate this post. Now, if I can just convince him to read it. BTW, I would love for airlines to switch to revenue model, it would make it easier to get economy tickets for my family. Oops, wrong blog… Moving on.

  12. Gary, your thread seemed to occur one week early. Apparently the bright minds at United tweeted that there are exciting new rewards coming to Mileage Plus. There is a thread discussing this on Milepoint, and the “new rewards,” are to be announced next week.

    Do you have any insight as to what may be occurring? If they debase the Mileage Plus program with “enhancements,” then it will go down as one of the worst examples of marketing and loss of loyalty.

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