Should Frequent Flyer Air-Miles Programs Be Banned?


A recent report published by the U.K.’s Committee on Climate Change has suggested frequent flyer reward schemes that “stimulate demand” should be banned-with an “escalating air miles levy” meaning that those who fly the furthest would pay the most.

This issue and subsequent conclusion will certainly split opinion. I personally am a frequent flyer, taking over 100 flights each year for work, and yet I have no substantive airline loyalty status. I offset my carbon footprint of flying where I can and I’m happy to pay an increased levy for flying more, rather than receive minimal awards for my loyalty.

The average inflation-adjusted airfare in the U.S. is now a staggering 50% cheaper than it was 30 years ago. Many passengers are pushing for cheaper tickets but more flights and more rewards is not a sustainable growth path.

Greta Thunberg makes some very sensible points, but they are often too extreme and misguided. Try telling children in the Industrial revolution that her childhood is ruined relative to theirs when the sky was literally turned black. That also doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to the problem we currently face, but extreme rhetoric and flight shaming is not the answer. The issue needs to be solved not only by our individual actions but also by the actions of the companies who sell us products. This includes how airlines structure and offer loyalty programs. Can Greta Thunberg justifiably tell children in developing countries that they cannot be afforded the same opportunities that she has in her native Sweden?

So, I’m going to leave this statistic here: since 1988, only 100 companies have been responsible for 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Action must start with our individual actions but importantly with the major companies that are responsible for emissions.

If I had to summarise frequent flyer programs, I would say that rarely have the costs associated with them been so great, for such small stakes, both monetary and environmentally.

Many frequent flyer programs offer such menial gains for a recognised status that the question has to be asked if they are actually worth it? An extra checked bag, seat selection and occasional lounge access. This works well for the airline that retains loyalty but does it offer any tangible benefit away from encouraging passengers to fly more on a certain carrier or alliance? I don’t think so.

Some executives of airline loyalty programs (whom I’ll refrain from naming) have pointed out a generalist arrogance from the most frequent flyers. So is it time that instead of parading around frequent flyers by pre-boarding gold card members, we tax frequent flyers proportionally without offering such minimal perks for additional flights? The issue is that in an industry with such small margins, everyone is drinking from the same cool-aid to attract customers.

It seems that the only people that care about what frequent flyer status people are, is the individual themselves. Rarely do heads turn or anyone really cares that a ‘gold member’ is boarding a plane first. The very essence of flying frequently should mean that we take accountability, rather than non-existent applause through a gold coloured plastic baggage tag.

However, it is also worth noting that commercial scheduled flights only account for a relatively small amount of emissions. Roughly 2% of global CO2 emissions come from the airline industry, but that doesn’t mean the responsibility shouldn’t lay with both the airlines and the passengers. Some airlines have great initiatives to allow passengers to plant trees at the point of booking to offset their carbon emissions. This should be applauded. It would be crazy to think that your home energy provider would send you a letter saying “congratulations on all the energy you have used, why not use more next year to increase your electricity provider status.”

That being said, the new “trend” of “flight shaming” seems a step too far. Many of the people that fly are not frequent flyers and in-fact extreme environmental actions that target airports are mostly damaging those families who may have saved up for a year to enjoy a holiday. Having respect for the environment and not rewarding the biggest CO2 emitters is an important first step, but blindly targeting aviation is entirely misled in my opinion.

Closing down airports takes away from individuals but the message needs to be targeted at the consumers who encourage cheaper aviation, and the airlines who encourage this. Flight tickets have become relatively cheaper than ever, and so it should be the case that passengers and airlines both take accountability for the benefits they now receive of affordable global travel without an environmentalist movement that cripples the industry.

Aviation is incredibly important for not only economic growth but people’s happiness. Having a holiday is one of the most cherished times people can have. Should we ban everything that leads to any enjoyment? Air shows and motorsport racing to name but a few examples?

The very point is that if anyone flies a lot, we should not be rewarded for it, but expect to pay a proportionate, if not a relatively higher amount to ensure that our actions are offset to protect the environment we live in.

As individuals, we can all look at ourselves and how we can change what we do to protect the environment but I just want to put this statistic here again. 100 companies around the world are responsible for a staggering 71% of greenhouse emissions. Everything we do needs to improve on an individual level to protect the world we live in, but also on a corporate and governmental level. This does not mean targeting absolutely everything that emits CO2, or else the message becomes radical and loses focus.

Granted, frequent flyer programs may afford small benefits to passengers that do fly frequently and spend a lot of time in airports, particularly domestically, and although I don’t think they should be banned, they should certainly be reformed to not actually encourage passengers to fly more.

Environmental change is very real, and if the largest 100 companies in the world extract fossil fuels at the same rate over the next 28 years like the last 28 years, global temperatures could rise by up to 4 degrees centigrade. Unless you have been living under a rock, you’ll know the devastating consequences that can have on sea levels and the wider ecosystem.

With 2% of emissions coming from the aviation sector, it needs to be priced sensibly to not reward greater use, but importantly, put into comparison with the agriculture and forestry sector at 25% of carbon emissions and the heat and electricity sectors also accounting for 25%. Even the fashion industry is responsible for 8% of carbon emissions.

Therefore the flygskam stigma around commercial aviation seems largely misplaced, as the majority of people taking planes are not doing so consistently, and those who are, including me, should not be rewarded with a plastic colour-coded card to boast to absolutely no one about how much we fly. It should be appropriately priced to allow us all to sensibly contribute to preserving our environment where we can.

I’m just going to end with the same point I raised before: 100 companies account for 71% of the world’s global greenhouse gas emissions.