Air Travel: Why the Time Is Right for Frequent-Flier Perks

Now more than ever, frequent-flier programs offer travelers a world of opportunities to earn award seats, as a look at the industry’s emerging trends reveals

By Gabriel Leigh

In late January, 160 of the world’s most dedicated frequent fliers got together in Dallas, Texas, for a mini-tour of the U.S. on a chartered American Airlines Boeing 757 aircraft. This was, however, no ordinary charter flight—the so-called Oneworld MegaDo was a weeklong miles and points extravaganza, hosted and sponsored by frequent-flier website Milepoint, American Airlines, and Hyatt Hotels, among others. Representatives of those programs were on hand to chat and answer questions, with guests granted access to American Airlines’ operations center in Dallas, the Boeing factory in Seattle, and the Oneworld alliance headquarters in Los Angeles. Connecting those cities, the chartered aircraft transformed into something akin to a bustling bar in the sky, the aisles filled with mile junkies drinking cocktails, comparing mileage balances and elite status, and brandishing the latest point-earning credit cards.

It was ostensibly a marketing opportunity for the companies, and something of a PR coup. But the fact that the president of American Airlines’ AAdvantage frequent-flier program came along on the trip was an indication of just how important the reward program customer base has become. Since the early 1980s, when American Airlines launched the first airline loyalty program, the number of frequent-flier accounts has swelled into the hundreds of millions. And though this is most true for North America, where mileage-earning opportunities have become almost surreal in scale (100,000 miles for opening a credit card was one recent offer), it’s a phenomenon that’s spreading across the world. Even in Asia, where it’s generally harder to earn a significant number of reward points without putting in some effort, there are now many ways to see them start piling up.

Every airline worth its salt has to have a frequent-flier program these days, and because of growing global airline alliances, it’s possible to consolidate miles and points into a handful of programs and see those balances grow faster. But that’s not the major news. The most striking trend of late is the ever-expanding portfolio of partner companies that have nothing to do with flying, where airline points can be earned for everything from buying flowers to taking out a mortgage. Some airlines even have online shopping portals where the purchases accrue points in their program. Supermarkets have also started partnering with frequent-flier schemes. The possibilities, apparently, are endless.

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