How Passengers Helped Mess Up Frequent Flyer Programs

By Robert Mark on February 26th, 2015

How Passengers Helped Mess Up Frequent Flyer Programs

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If you missed last week’s episode of The Airplane Geeks Show, you also missed the discussion Brian Coleman our assistant producer started about frequent flyer programs. He began by mentioning the changes Southwest Airlines recently made to its Rapid Reward system. OK … bias alert — I’m a long time Southwest customer, a fact that has nothing to do with the photo I have in my office of the airline’s founder Herb Kelleher and I having a glass of Wild Turkey when I was lucky enough to meet him many years back.

Anyway, everyone seemed so concerned about Rapid Rewards. The changes mean a free flight costs more than it used to. Hmmm … A free flight costs more … now there’s a contradiction for you. My only comment though was so what? The fact that Southwest took this long to tweak their program to better reflect the price of the ticket was the real surprise to me.

Even though I have to drive crosstown to Midway to connect with Southwest, I make the trip often, but not because of the free tickets. I just like Southwest’s service. Free tickets are just gravy. And I don’t fly Business Select either. I’m in back with everybody else.TAM Final LogowithJet-01

But of course Brian couldn’t stop himself from talking about frequent flyer points. A couple of days later, he just had to share a post from our buddy Brett Snyder over at the Cranky Flier … that’s BTW. Brett makes airline economics look pretty easy as you’ll see if you read his Feb. 19th story about Southwest. I don’t disagree with what Brett said at all, but the changes don’t mean much to me. So maybe I’m in a minority even when the guy who cuts my hair started asking me for advice the other day on how best to travel using frequent flier points … Uggggh!

Just a Touch of History

One thing that keeps me centered when people start griping about free flights is remembering that Bob Crandall created American’s Advantage program in 1981 as a way to retain customers. All the other airlines of course quickly copied the program. Thirty Five years later though, all the airlines would like to dump these loyalty programs if they could, because they’re a ton of extra work for little return to the airlines. But we’re a generation of flyers addicted to free flights, so the airlines are probably stuck with these things.

But just because they’re stuck with these frequent flyer white elephants doesn’t mean the airlines won’t continue tweaking them though. Most importantly, there’s absolutely nothing passengers can do about any of this either.

Keep this in mind though as we all scuffle for free tickets. We passengers created much of this mess ourselves. All the airlines did was deliver what their customers asked for … cheap tickets. So the seats are tight, there’s no food, they lose our bags now and again, not to mention a host of new fees. We wanted cheap tickets and well, we got em.

The low-cost airlines that appeared after deregulation are what got people focused on price BTW. Before deregulation, when all the airlines charged the same price, I think they were actually trying to create a cruise line kind of travel experience in the air. But post-deregulation passengers chasing the cheapest ticket helped turn that experience into something closer to traveling by Greyhound bus.

So back to Southwest. To me, they’re an airline that delivers a consistent system for boarding airplanes. They let my bags ride free and the employees always seem pretty happy to see me. And no, Southwest isn’t perfect. They’ve lost some of my bags along the way. But they made good enough on the problem to keep me as a customer.

That’s life I think. People screw up and companies screw up. It’s how they handle the situation when they make a mistake though that’s important to me. But then if I start talk about those kind of situations too much, I’ll be stepping on Cranky Flier’s toes. And I don’t want to make him any crankier than he already is.

For now, I’m going to see if I have a free ticket on Southwest. If not, I’ll wait until I do. There just seems to be so many more important things to worry about these days I think … like what Brian Coleman has in store for me on this week’s show.

From Chicago, I’m Rob Mark. We’ll see you next time. Be sure and check out The Aviation Minute archive at in case you want to catch up on any back episodes.


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One Response to “How Passengers Helped Mess Up Frequent Flyer Programs”

  1. Dan Farmer Says:

    I’m a retired AA captain and could not agree more. I saw the last five years of regulation and flew another 26 years under deregulation. Every year I thought service can not get worse. I was wrong, but I finally realized people were getting what they were willing to pay. Buying an airline ticket is not like buying a car. When you buy a car you can see and sense the difference between a Chevy and a Cad. But for some reason when people buy an airline ticket they seem to think they can pay for a beat up yugo and ride on a Jaguar. people have brought this mess on themselfs!

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