It’s not a well-kept secret that I have lost an emotional connection to miles and points. I don’t know exactly when it happened, and in truth, there probably is no one single thing or event to point to that caused it. As time went by, it became less and less attractive to me to do be emotionally invested in loyalty programs. My friend, René wrote a post about the balance between fewer elites and first class upsells last week that I couldn’t help but comment on.

“Here’s the thing – for every Delta elite having this conversation with themselves, there’s an American and United elite having the same conversation and moving a flight or two to Delta. It’s the natural outcome of everything that has taken place in the industry in the last 10 years. I catch a lot of flak for having the opinions I have, and I’m OK with that. So far, I am comfortable with the percentage of my predictions of what would happen in the airline industry, and SkyMiles in particular, that have come true.

The airlines have figured out how much each one of us is really worth to them. They have also figured out that they don’t need to give away what they can sell. Does it impact loyalty in the historical sense of the word? Sure. But are you really going to just not fly the airline that offers you the best choice of schedule and price for the majority of your travel needs out of some sense of spite for changing the mileage program? Some diehards will, but most, including myself, won’t go that far….and the airlines know it. 

The thing no one wants to talk about (admit) is that we are in a new paradigm for airlines and loyalty. The old order is no longer valid. And I’m not convinced that “economic downturn” that a handful of us talk about leading to a real change in direction in the loyalty space is going to make that much difference when it finally gets here. YMMV.”

A New Paradigm?

I continue to believe that we are in a new paradigm when it comes to airline financials. No, I’m not so naive to believe that a terror attack, ZIKA plague, $200 per barrel oil, or some other calamity can’t possibly impact airlines and the rest of us at some point. It’s just that I believe that airlines are better equipped than they have ever been to manage through those things for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are actual financial managers being in control and let’s face it, there are fewer airlines than there were 10 years ago.


But What About Loyalty?

True frequent flyers – the people that fly to Hong Kong, Beijing, or London (or all three and Tokyo too) monthly for work really do have an emotional connection to the airline they fly most. I’m not talking about professional mileage runners and card flippers here. On one hand, you could argue that those kinds of flyers are paying fares that result in more miles in their accounts at the end of the day, and that’s probably true for most. But on the other, I’ve never met one of those true frequent flyers that hadn’t taken his or her family on a few “free” trips that would qualify as “trip of a lifetime” for many. The miles and points weren’t just something to “control the experience,” they were a reward to not only the traveler, but the whole family.

If you’ve read me before, you know that I am an airline guy at heart. A lot of what has happened in the last decade or so was painful for many, but necessary, and I would include changes to airline loyalty programs in that. Contrary to popular opinion, an airline is not a loyalty program with airplanes, at least not anymore. Change was going to happen, and it has. While I think a lot of what has been written about Delta’s incoming President Glen Hauenstein’s remarks during a recent presentation may be slightly overplayed, I can’t help but ponder something this Sunday morning. If Delta really does want to end the mindsight of taking a “free” trip with your miles…..ever…. might that be a bridge too far? Keep an eye on this.

-MJ, March 6, 2016