The Status of Frequent Flyer "Currencies"

From the desk of Bob Meyer at Barter News… 05/23/06

The World’s Largest Private Currency Continues To Soar!

Airline frequent flier miles (FFM) are without doubt the largest private currency in the world. Here’s a quick update on the ever-evolving currency and some of their future challenges ahead. (For a look at other type of private currencies see our Secondary Capital Section, http://www.barternews.com/secondary_capital.htm.)

It was in May 1981, 25 years ago, that American Airlines introduced the first frequent flier program—a program designed to build loyalty among its passengers. No one envisioned what would eventually result from such a marketing idea.

Today more than 130 airlines issue FFM and 120 million travelers worldwide have accumulated 14.2 trillion frequent flier miles, according to editor and publisher of Inside Flyer magazine Randy Peterson. That’s enough FFM for 568,000,000 flights.

According to the U.K.s Business Guardian publication, a frequent flier mile has a value between 1-cent and 6-cents each. At 3-cents each, the 14.2 trillion miles have a value of $420 billion!

Frequent flier miles are major sources of revenue for the airlines. In the U.S., carriers annually sell about $2 billion FFM to other businesses to use as customer rewards. Thus, people who rarely fly have the ability to earn miles when using credit cards, taking out a mortgage, eating in restaurants, or buying flowers.

Interestingly—disconcerting if you really think about it—the sale of FFM is the most-profitable part of many airlines. Yet the actual cost of fulfilling these “free” tickets is minimal…less than $15 on average, according to an article the April Harvard Business Review titled “Your Loyalty Program is Betraying You.”

Joseph C. Nunes, associate professor of marketing at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and co-author of the Harvard Business Review piece, says in the short term the frequent flier mile programs are in good shape.

Longer term, however, could be a different story as credit cards and/or mortgage companies may one day wake up and say, “To heck with enticing customers with FFM. They’re costing us too much and consumers aren’t as attracted to them as they once were. We’re going to compete on price instead.” (That’s what happened years ago to the Green-Stamps-for-products redemption program.)

Additionally, fulfillment could become a major problem as airline fleets are decreasing in size. The legacy carriers of the world—such as United or American—had a combined fleet that was 22% smaller at the end of 2005 than in mid-2001, according to industry trade group Air Transport Association.

While there is little chance of fulfilling on 586 million flights as long as the industry continues selling $2 billion of FFM annually, the following story shows United is taking a small step in the right direction.

“Choices” Air Currency Launched By United

In an effort to make FFM more attractive, United Air Lines has launched a separate new form of air currency it calls Choices miles. The new program offers complete transparency in that there is no waiting, no black-out dates, and no seat restrictions or other conditions attached.

Choices can only be earned by using a Chase United Mileage Plus credit card. Although the miles can be used for flights on United, or hotel and car rentals, they must be booked online at http://www.united.com.

The Choice miles can also be used, at a penny-per-mile, toward payment of a previously purchased flight made at http://www.united.com. It’s only a matter of logging into the web site and transferring Choice miles against the billed airfare, i.e. the credit card balance is reduced when miles are credited against it.

Example: A ticket is purchased using a Chase Mileage Plus credit card via United’s web site for $299. When the bill comes you log on to united.com and transfer 20,000 of your Choice miles to apply against the $299, reducing your bill and ticket payment to $99. (Unlike a regular award ticket, you also earn FFM on the transaction.)

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