“For an entire product class to be more or less serving as a mile-burning product, that’s not the right thing….”
-Christoph Franz, CEO of Lufthansa

About this time last year, MrsMJ and I were returning from a 3-week European vacation onboard a Lufthansa A330 in First Class. We were the only passengers in the cabin. While I’m sure the holiday week had something to do with that, it has a certain bit of extra meaning to me in light of the widely quoted remark above from a November 6th interview in New York since, of course, I payed for our flights with miles. MileagePlus miles and a few Ultimate Rewards points (15,000) transferred over to MileagePlus to be exact.

I’m a glass half-full kind of guy, an eternal optimist, and very entertaining in bars and nightclubs. Even still, I think it is time to let go of any notions we may hold that the next recession, oil shock, or other calamity is going to change the new reality. For the first time since the Wright Brothers flew, airlines are being managed like for-profit enterprises and not cash generators (in good times) and burners (in bad times) winging their way from crisis to crisis hoping to fire sale enough tickets and borrow enough money to meet payroll and buy fuel. That is a good thing, because only a consistently profitable enterprise can invest in the people and equipment necessary to deliver a product that customers want to buy. That is the primary goal of most any enterprise, including an airline, and that is the way it should be. The issue is that in managing their businesses in this new (to them) way, airlines have removed the release valve of empty seats they could once give away for “free” while not quite giving up on their addiction to minting miles for cash. Something was going to give, and it’s already starting.

I am not blameless either. I can produce miles out of thin air while picking up a bottle of Rogaine, so can you, and that is part of the problem as well. At the risk of turning this into an us vs. them or one percenter mileage hoarders of the world unite post, I think it’s time to embrace the new reality. I’ve probably taken my last trip in a near (hey, those were the old seats) world-class first class product for 125,000 miles. I am fortunate to fly enough for work and personal travel that I can hold a level of elite status to keep me more comfortable than the average Joe, and provide me with a reasonable cache of miles that others may have to struggle more to obtain. Maybe that makes me a little less troubled by things than I would otherwise be, and I acknowledge the possibility.

In the end, the result of all this is that “free” travel never really was free, and it is going to cost us all more miles than it did before. That’s not the end of the world, but it may also mean that doing other things with your hard-earned points or changing your focus on the mileage/points currencies you earn is becoming a relatively more attractive possibility. More this week.

-MJ, November 26, 2013