Would scrapping frequent flyer schemes really reduce climate change?!

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The media – of which, technically, HFP is part – is a funny thing.  On Sunday evening I noticed a couple of comments on the site relating to Guardian coverage of a report written by Imperial College and commissioned by the Government’s Committee on Climate Change.

This report is 81 pages long.  It is a huge piece of work, called “Behaviour change, public engagement and Net Zero”.   You can download it here (PDF).

This report is massively wide-ranging.  On page 15, for example, it touches on limiting the number of children you have.  Of the 81 pages, just FOUR are devoted to aviation.  Of those four pages devoted to aviation, just SIX LINES discuss the impact of frequent flyer schemes.  That is six lines out of 81 pages.

Here is the full text:

“Evidence also suggests that frequent flyers engage in additional flights to maintain their privileged traveller status (so-called ‘mileage runs’ or ‘status runs’) and that frequent flying is related to status and social identity (Gössling and Cohen, 2014). Introducing restrictions to ‘all-you-can-fly’ passes and loyalty schemes which offer air miles would remove incentives to excessive or stimulated flying.”

and later, under ‘Recommendations’:

“Introduce a ban on air miles and frequent flyer loyalty schemes that incentivise excessive flying (as was enforced in Norway 2002-13).”

That’s it.  You wouldn’t think that six lines on air miles inside a very wide-ranging report on ways to combat climate change would make much impact.  I wasn’t expecting the story to go beyond the Guardian‘s website – if I had guessed otherwise, I would have written this article yesterday.

And yet …… I’m not sure if it was someone at the Guardian who picked out those lines or if the Committee on Climate Change fed those lines to the press.  However, yesterday it was scattered across many of the front pages:

…. and before I knew it I had Sky News in our office:

Head for Points on Sky News

…. and I ended up in this segment:

I need to confess that the whole thing happened so quickly that I hadn’t actually read the report by the time I was filmed.  I had no idea that the recommendation to ban frequent flyer schemes was just six lines of 81 pages.  If I had, I may have taken a different approach.

It is very clear, however, that whoever wrote the report has not really thought this through. For a start, placing a large emphasis on people who take flights purely to top up their tier points is nonsense.

British Airways flies 1 million per week, around 50 million per year.  At best, I would suggest that 5,000 people per year take a flight purely to ensure their status card is renewed.  Due to the nature of the Executive Club scheme, these flights (if they are on BA) are likely to be Club Europe returns which require a Saturday night stay.  This means that the tier point run is actually a weekend break – which doesn’t count!

Despite what the report implies, it usually isn’t possible, on BA, to take a Club Europe flight with an immediate turnaround purely for the tier points due to the Saturday night rule.

There are, of course, people who take extra flights to save money.  Some HFP readers fly to Inverness to start a long haul redemption because it saves the Air Passenger Duty.  This is a totally different issue – these flights can be stopped by fixing distortions in the tax system.  They have nothing to do with air miles.

Other people take extra flights to save money on cash fares.  If a British Airways ticket is £500 cheaper if you start in Amsterdam, then many people will buy a £50 one-way to Amsterdam to start their trip.  Again, this has nothing to do with frequent flyer miles and all to do with how airlines price their tickets.

Head for Points on Sky News

What can we say, factually, about the contribution of frequent flyer miles to airline emissions?

The vast majority of UK flights do not involve frequent flyer schemes.  easyJet, Ryanair, Jet2 and Wizz do not have schemes at all.  No-one flying in discounted economy on BA or Virgin Atlantic is being attracted by the pitiful level of Avios or tier points earned either.  (Remember that a cheap BA flight to Amsterdam earns just 125 Avios and 5 tier points.)

The key role of frequent flyer schemes is to encourage people to fly with one carrier over another – NOT to fly for the sake of it

To the extent that frequent flyer schemes encourage more flights to be taken – due to redemptions – the airlines try to direct customers onto less popular services where seats would otherwise remain empty.  To some extent, frequent flyer schemes are a method of levelling out demand across different flights.

Head for Points on Sky News

However, to be totally fair, I can identify a couple of occasions when I have taken flights unnecessarily for reasons relating to miles and points.  I would estimate that this represents about 1,000th of the miles I have flown in my life:

I once flew to Manchester and back on Virgin’s Little Red because it had agreed to status match anyone who flew it, which got me a Virgin Atlantic Gold card, and give 10,000 Flying Club miles on top.  However, this was also done to review Little Red for HFP, and I never actually used my Virgin Gold status.  The offer did tempt me into taking the flight when I may otherwise have not done so, however.

In my banking days, I would occasionally fly to Paris instead of taking Eurostar.  My ‘all business class’ contract meant I earned 80 tier points and a couple of those a year helped me retain my Silver status.  The trip itself, however, was always necessary.  I continue to fly to Paris if Eurostar pricing is high and I can get a flight on Avios for substantially less.

That’s it.  There are many other flights I’ve taken to start trips outside the UK to save money, but that has nothing to do with frequent flyer schemes.

There was a line I said for the Sky News interview which was cut, but which I thought was relevant.  The airlines are fully behind cutting aviation emissions, because fuel is by far their biggest cost.  Investing in new aircraft such as the A350 and scrapping 20+ year old Boeing 747s is good for the environment and the profitability of the airlines.

I’m not here to discuss whether the Government should tax flights more heavily, or whether everyone should have an annual flight cap (also a report recommendation) above which they would be penalised, or whether aviation fuel should be taxed, or whether flights should incur VAT.  These are political issues, although is clear is that the Overton window has moved sharply.

Thinking that frequent flyer schemes have any noticeable impact in any of this simply overshadows other more sensible recommendations, however.

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  1. I did watch young Greta give her speech at the UN, somethings very eerily wrong with this child. Her words “How dare you to talk about money when you are taking away our future” is what resonated with me… Talk about the pot calling the kettle. Research her background, and see who should be affronted… She is just a pawn to brainwash the young to embolden them to rebel against there elders, who have a bit more insight and intelligence to see through and question the so-called biased scientific rhetoric. The UN will introduce an emergency global individual person carbon tax to reduce the planet emergency. CO2 is not the enemy, it has always been indigenous to the ecosystems and biostasis of the planet. The questions we need to be asking what is being done about the toxic chemicals the human body is being bombarded with.

  2. Can I just add a request that others have touched upon Rob – I realise that carbon offsetting schemes are barely monitored at all, and nobody is really paying attention to how much of an impact they have. Since this is (and should be) a major concern for frequent flyers going forward, it seems like the world is screaming out for a bit of decent analysis of the various different schemes out there that one can use to green-wash / salve their conscience (or maybe one day actually improve the situation).
    Which schemes publish data and make an effort at transparency?
    Which schemes pay people to not chop down forest (and to be fair, if we want people around the globe to not chop down primary forest to serve as the Earth’s lungs for the rest of us, when they want to use their land for farming, when England has only 10% of forest cover left and with people like Bolsonaro in power, realistically we need to offer some sort of incentive, other than just saying it’s what they should be doing)?
    Which schemes are more engaged in replanting of trees?
    Which schemes are actually monitored and do some sort of auditing / analysis of their effectiveness in order to constantly improve?
    As you have said – nobody in the media is focusing on this. As you have also said HfP is part of the media, and there have been many times that an article on this site has caused a ripple of related articles in the national press.
    If you don’t agree that the focus should be on FF schemes, use your position to change the subject of the public discourse to the effectiveness of offset schemes and what needs to improve with them.
    I’d also add that, as a mathematician who has been following the astute analysis on this website for 4 years now, I would trust your analysis above that of most others.

  3. 50 years ago Paul Ehrlich wrote

    “The responsibility for saving spaceship Earth lies with the first class passengers”

  4. Charlieface says:

    I think this article was very interesting:
    Again it shows the media don’t pickup the fine nuances: it’s better CO2 wise for 2 people to share a car than to take the bus, but the BBC didn’t mention that. Come to Manchester (or any ‘regional’ centre) and see the old buses belching out fumes id they eventually turn up, you’ll realise bus lanes are ridiculous.
    I agree with Rob that carbon-offsetting is a complete scam, but then so are most things involving airlines.

    • Is that a small hybrid or a 1932 Rolls Royce? Is that 20x cars versus 40 on the bus, or 2 in the car versus 2 on the bus?
      Surely bus lanes are as much about limiting traffic flow as they are about buses flowing. Yes I know idling traffic pollutes but the idea is to make it so horrible to drive people use shared public transport. Nothing is perfect but we do know from the past 50 years that traffic expands to fit the amount of road.

      • Shoestring says:

        that last bit is a silly myth

        when/ why would a country invest in & expand its road infrastructure? lots of reasons but typIcally when it can afford it (growing national wealth)/ to stimulate economic activity (growing national wealth)/ because the existing infrastructure is poor and the electorate demand better roads

        so increasing the amount of road goes hand in hand with increasing national wealth and increasing demand for roads – it’s not as if building roads suddenly magically makes people go & buy a car

        the logic in that statement is very flawed, ie we did x (build roads) & y happened (more cars used the roads) therefore x caused y

        separating causation from correlation is a very basic thing to consider when drawing conclusions of any sort 🙂

      • Whether considered silly by you or not, there’s a great deal of evidence to support new or expanded roads increase traffic.

        • Shoestring says:

          sure but you need to look at the much wider picture for travelling, not just think [somewhat simplistically?] that building more roads increases traffic in itself – there are loads more factors at work, such as huge increases in population (true of UK as well) over the last 60 years, massive increase in wealth and the ability to actually buy & run cars, the absence of alternatives (to the car) when many activities rely on frequent cheap convenient travel

          I would imagine that the London (or Singapore/ Hong Kong) examples where people can actually survive pretty well without cars is pretty rare case even now – the first thing developers do down in my patch/ Cornwall when designing ever cheaper/ affordable housing is make sure the units all come with 2 or more parking spaces as that’s not a ‘nice to have’ advantage but a dealbreaker

        • On dear! Looks like you been harry’ed

  5. Rob, they key thing is, this is easy to change and de-incentivise customers to take those flights, irrespective of the principal purpose of the schemes as far as the Airline is concerned. Air travel emissions are undoubtedly a noteworthy contributory factor to climate change, and If a few people have to lose the benefits of frequent flyer schemes , then that is a small price to pay. If the customers were to pay for the full cost of their emissions i.e. the carbon capture at the other end, then it wouldn’t be as much of an issue, but they are not.

    • Lady London says:

      In that case I insist on taxing every single cow in India on its methane omissions.

  6. >The vast majority of UK flights do not involve frequent flyer schemes. easyJet, …

    easyJet has Flight Club which is a frequent flyer scheme, it may not offer the same level of benefits as BAEC etc. but it still rewards loyalty. easyJet Plus is also a (paid for) FFS aimed at frequent travelers.

  7. How many times has this site promoted ‘points runs’ and which airports you can comfortably return on the same aircraft without leaving the airport?

    How staying for a weekend “doesn’t count!” defeats all sense. I was embarrassed to read such illogical nonsense from a site I hold in high regard.

    To meet the carbon-neutral targets all airlines will have to be planting vast forests, the cost of which will have to be included in the fares.

    To tax frequent flyers more per gram of CO2 more than others also makes no sense. Each gram is equally damaging. It would help if aviation fuel was taxed like other fuels and all aviation emissions were compulsorily offset by measures to make the effect carbon neutral or negative.

    It won’t happen. It may in lip service but never in reality.

    It will be interesting see how evolution copes. Evolution never loses. Humankind may be wiped soon (along with all their points).

    • Er, probably never for your first point Tim. We are a generalist site, not Flyertalk.

      Obviously a weekend break doesn’t count. If I am planning a weekend away and I choose to go to Malta instead of Rome partly because it is 160 tier points, then there is no net difference. I go to Malta, have a two night break and come home. Something that millions of people do every year. If I go to Malta and come straight back then that is different, but you can’t do that because BA won’t sell you a ticket that allows it.

  8. Richard says:

    Modern day FFPs as well as recognising and rewarding existing behaviour have become increasingly focussed on changing certain frequent flyers’ behaviour.
    They are becoming revenue based – so spending more rather than flying more is recognised – that could be seen a good thing.
    Or, it could be seen that economy class has been downgraded to create a need or justification for spending more on an increasing personally rewarding and polluting premium products.
    Aren’t some airlines looking to reduce the number of gold card holders?
    The behaviour the airline currently craves is increased share of the “flight bookers” premium spend, irrespective of the carbon footprint produced.
    Here it should be noted that the few do take many flights.
    For the traveller, that might mean a compromise over product/schedule to recieve an increased reward however it could lead to a more pollutiing journey with a stopover and yes, potentially journeys being undertaken that might not, without the increased reward.
    The vast majority of this business is booked through company (not personally) paid tickets and therefore open to the vagaries if each company’s ability to police their staff’s behaviour in the face of of the airline’s desire to change their staff’s behaviour.
    Anyway, I would say it should be larger companies first in the queue to campaign to remove FFPs.

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