Maximise your Avios, air miles and hotel points

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.

Comments (243)

  • Emily says:

    You really need to work on your delivery when speaking. You sound like a chav. And surely your office is big enough for the camera to actually be in it?!?!

    • Mike says:

      Wow! I think that comment says more about you than Rob.

      Seperately, I see in the report that they have referenced sources when making these claims, so perhaps it would be worth reviewing the initial (academic?) reports. As while it might only be a few lines in this report it doesn’t mean it isn’t based on more substantial studies.

    • Fred says:

      Ok a bit harsh I’d say, that’s not the problem really. I do think Rob could work on his enunciation –often times I can’t fully understand what he’s saying as he talks too fast for media and some words/sounds get lost, but that’s easy to fix, just speak slower 🙂 I do voice overs for a living, FWIW.

      • BJ says:

        @Rob, please don’t listen to them, just be yourself.

      • Rob says:

        I didn’t get the questions in advance, which makes it harder.

        • Cat says:

          Rob, you were great. End of.

        • BJ says:

          The pressure of doing media, especially live TV or recorded TV where you have no chance to prepare, or get caught off guard is enormous. Those who have not done it do not realise how hard and stressful it is. TV has enough fake untrustworthy personas already, that’s why it’s best just to be yourself.

    • Andrew says:

      Just because he drops his Ts doesn’t make him a chav. The UK media sector welcomes people from all socio-economic backgrounds.

      • JH says:

        I hate the herd mentality of dropping T’s. You can hear it happen in real time on the BBC eg Simon Mayo from one month to the next, to be down with the kids.

    • JP-MCO says:

      Wow Emily – you are an incredibly rude person! I would rather have an accent like Rob’s (which I do as I’m also from Sheffield) than be a nasty person like you.

    • Rob says:

      My Dad was a steelworker from Rotherham, not a member of the House of Lords.

      • TGLoyalty says:

        Made me laugh.

      • JP-MCO says:

        Did you insist on there being Hendos served with the meal at Quo Vadis?

        • The Savage Squirrel says:

          I hope so. Henderson’s improves everything. The idea of Rob being a chav given where he lives and works and his kids go to school is one of the funniest things I’ve read on here for ages. Emily’s view of the world must be similar to that bit on Monty Python where it flashes up “The Third World…..Yorkshire”.

    • Lady London says:

      Sadly Emily these days quite a few very wealthy or influential people in English-speaking cultures make a point of sounding and looking like chavs or similarly scruffy. And they’re not all drug dealers.

  • Yuff says:

    What’s the saying” never let facts get in the way of a good story” Isn’t that what the media is all about these days…..
    Brexit being the prime example……
    Editors have their own agendas

  • Chris D says:

    One response to this could be for airlines to move to schemes that are even more revenue based – or at least more closely related to distance. BAEC (especially) incentivises people to take unnecessary flight connections, due to fairly blunt and crude distance bandings for how tier points are earned, when (all else being equal) point-to-point flights are better for the environment for those who have that option.

  • jimA says:

    Its a complex subject, sure there are very few flights taken to chase status but I would never have flown business class without Lloyds upgrade voucher + Avios
    Remember that a business class flight is a lot more environmentally unfriendly than a trip in cattle class
    The very existence of sites like HFP – and there are quite a few of them – and the predominance of articles on how to earn/burn points suggest there is a problem
    The other two articles today are about Amex card points and cheap Lufthansa/Swiss flights – if you travel an extra leg to Italy then backtrack to Franfurt Thats 3 or 4 extra flights
    To take one example which is pushed several times every month – the value of the BA Amex companion voucher, at the very least it enables 2 people to travel Club for the cost of economy – with the extra environmental burden and I’m sure some people would not make the trip as frequently without it
    Perhaps a better way to deal with it is to make miles taxable – after all why should something which you get from travelling for work and has a real value not be taxed ?

    • Chris D says:

      While you may have flown in business class because of miles, those are seats that the airline did not believe it could sell at a high price in the first place. Without miles, you may have purchased a cash ticket on a full flight (on more convenient dates), which is arguably worse for the environment as your demand is driving up the supply curve. The point that air miles fill up excess demand is often missed.

      • Simon says:

        Also, jimA’s businesses class flight attracted higher APD, supposedly incentivising him not to be in business class.

        ChrisD – the scientists would argue that f the seats can’t be sold then the flight shouldn’t happen. And if that makes for higher prices another day then that’s fine with them too, because those priced out will (they suppose) will not fly at all.

    • John says:

      “after all why should something which you get from travelling for work and has a real value not be taxed”

      Firstly, many people earn miles without travelling for work.

      Taxes disincentivise the activity being taxed. So if you want to disincentivise flying by all means tax flying, but taxes on work disincentivise work and should be kept as low as possible (or even abolished completely).

  • Chris L says:

    I think in reality there are many steps you would need to have exhausted before banning miles schemes.
    1. Ban airline advertising and sponsorship
    2. Increase tax for premium classes
    3. Fine carriers for empty seats
    4. Ban routes which have a sensible alternative
    5. Make all businesses publish their flight data including their CO2 emissions

  • NigelthePensioner says:

    “Some HFP readers fly to Inverness to start a long haul (redemption) because it saves the Air Passenger Duty”

    Too right! Flying BHX to INV this morning to follow on with INV to LHR later and thence LHR to LAS. 500 tier points each (you do the class maths) and ker-ching!! A night at the Sofitel also counts towards maintaining Platinum with Accor!

    O/T How does a “visually impared” UK para-Olympic team member climb onto the top of a plane??? Something smells fishy here…….

    • TripRep says:

      I saw the video of him doing it, pretty ballsy tbh. He’s the same guy that was banned for doping. XR does seem to attract a few disenchanted folks looking for belonging and a sense of purpose. Bit like a church or the Flat Earth Society, tends to become a faith based group with the same mantra rather than encourage critical thinking. Question Time was good last week, worth a rewatch.

      • Gbit says:

        Of course the difference between flat-earthers and extinction rebellion is that all the science and evidence is on extinction rebellions side.

        • John says:

          Most flat earthers don’t actually believe the earth is flat. Just like most XR members don’t believe in making themselves extinct.

      • Lady London says:

        Omigod could your comments relate to some of US on HfP too ? 🙂

    • ankomonkey says:

      The fishy smell is just the cod mornay – today’s CE lunch offering.

  • Rob says:

    The bottom line is that miles have a value, and as a result they affect behaviour, much like Gary Becker demonstrated that the risk of being caught is just a “business cost” for criminals (cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/cp410.pdf). The effect might be tiny per person, but there are millions of people flying per day and so if it affects a small proportion of these it’s probably scaling up to a measurable impact.

    • Crafty says:

      Exactly. Rob HFP appears to be wilfully ignoring the main point here.

      • TGLoyalty says:

        Is he?

        It does affect behaviour like Rob says. It makes you choose one airline over another. Do you really take a £100 flight to earn 1000 Avios? You can buy them far cheaper.

        If you spend £200 on a flight to keep BA silver then you must fly enough already to value the perks otherwise it’s pointless.

        APD and pricing affects my behaviour in taking more flights than BAEC does. In fact if the uk was alone in increasing tax on flyings im even more likely to go to mainland Europe to start my long haul business class trips.

        • Doug M says:

          I’m not sure all TP runners are entirely rational. On FT I see plenty of questions about how can I get X, but when they explain circumstances X has little benefit beyond shiny card.
          As a general point the only filling empty seats argument doesn’t make much sense. Over time those empty seats will cause a reduction in frequency and less flights.
          I’d like to see APD increase on First and Business. The hike from Economy to Premium is huge, to then see Business and First pay the same as Premium make little sense if it is a green tax.

          • Rob says:

            But more people would then go via Inverness, Amsterdam etc.

            I would already save £650 in APD on my family of 4 if I dragged them to AMS first. That is not a big enough saving to risk the wrath of my wife. At some point we would hit a number where she will be up for it.

      • Rob says:

        If they did not impact behaviour they would not exist. But the behaviour is switching, not flying per se.

        You could make a similar argument for banning flat bed seats. Make flying less comfy and fewer would do it plus you could squeeze in more people so emissions per seat reduce.

        • Chris D says:

          I guess the argument holds that people may “switch” from greener forms of transport to an airline due to an FFP.

          But this is addressing the issue from the wrong end – the issue is that the prices of the two modes of transport are comparable in the first place such that switching is a tempting option.

        • Crafty says:

          I haven’t seen any large sample studies on this, but based on anecdotes I disagree. I’m currently working at a large retailer in the North. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve told me (clearly there’s an Avios enthusiast in the pack) “we saved so much by using Avios for our main holiday this year that we’re going for an extra one in October!”

  • TripRep says:

    It’s the 15% of flyers that are responsible for 70% of flights that’s the eye opener for me.

    Also, ultra low cost carriers also encourage unnecessary repeat flights. You know that there’s an imbalance in taxation when the short cab ride to the airport costs more than a 3hour flight to the Med.

    They could tax Airline journeys / mile at the same rate as the fuel duty used per mile by a 200g/km car.

    Or likely far easier, introduce non negotiable minimum fare, so even if Ryanair want to offer it for a £5, the full APD (eg £100) has to be paid.

    Yes, I’m well aware that would do away with BA RFS £35 rtns.

    Of course I would only support this if applied to other more harmful unnecessary parts of our society, eg disposable Fast Fashion, cosmetics, perfume, Cruise Liners, etc, etc. It would also only gain traction if our “progressive” EU counterparts followed matched us on this.

    • mradey says:

      This is a wind up, right?

      • memesweeper says:

        A joke? No. If you read the report (I have) and understand frequent and indeed infrequent flyer behaviour, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was poorly researched and/or makes undeliverable policy suggestions. Having said that, I suspect the authors don’t care. They wanted to spark a debate and they have. Hopefully someone now comes up with some workable ideas to cut the inexorable growth in CO2 emissions from aviation.

      • Doug M says:

        Why? Why not rebut the points made if you feel that?

      • Rob says:

        Sounds sensible to me (vs other options). Not sure why 15/70 surprised you though, given that 20/80 is the answers to most things in business and the average person will take 1 return per year.

      • Bazza says:

        Looks like he researched and found that he was wrong…..again!

    • Crafty says:

      This is in principle a good suggestion and I think it would be more impactful than controlling airline miles.

    • memesweeper says:

      +1 for much higher short haul APD and minimum flight pricing

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