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)

  • Tony says:

    Make no difference.
    What drives us to fly by whoever is the thirst for new adventure and see different cultures.

    • Yorkieflyer says:

      Brexit should put paid to these sort of daft ideas I for one will be happy with a dingy seaside b & b in Skegness 😬🙄

    • Lady London says:

      +1. Plus a bit of feeling superior when flying in upper classes does help.(as well as changing thé flying expérience to make it much more comfortable).

      • TripRep says:

        “feeling superior” – Oh dear….

        I like it because it’s less stressful, more relaxing, comfortable, nice food/drink, easy to sleep, lower DVT risk.

        • Anna says:

          Not having the back of someone else’s seat in one’s face for 10 hours. Complete gamechanger for me.

    • Doug M says:

      “What drives us to fly by whoever is the thirst for new adventure and see different cultures.” The culture of Dubai and Qatar, or maybe the parts of Spain where the desperate try to recreate Blackpool with Sun, via all-day fry-ups and pints of lager for breakfast.

  • AJA says:

    I earn my silver status from paying to fly in business class. The actual status that comes from the card isnt a huge benefit for me as I always get lounge access which is the biggest benefit of a Silver card. The extra Avios earned are merely a bonus but not a huge incentive.

    I save my Avios to spend on my 2-4-1 voucher I’ve earned for spending £10k on my BAPP Amex. The flights I take are not additional flying. I would still fly , it’s just a cheaper flight as a consequence of the Avios. It’s no different to the Nectar points I earn in Sainsburys. They simply allow me to get something for less than I would otherwise have paid.

    • John says:

      +1

      Points on petrol should be banned first (and wouldn’t even be difficult, as they are already not awarded / usable on things like stamps and baby formula)

      • ankomonkey says:

        Yes. I bet Lewis Hamilton uses points to fly to the Grands Prix in First Class. All points earned from buying petrol and new tyres.

  • David says:

    There’s so much the government could do to encourage people out of planes, and choose not to do.

    I am a Willie (work in London, live in Edinburgh) and so make a journey every week that could be done by either train or plane.

    I see 1st on the train as very slightly preferable to flying economy – ie the increase in comfort and ability to work slightly outweighs the increased travel time. Standard class on the train however I see as inferior to flying.

    Until virgin took over from East Coast, I could take the train in 1st for a lower cost than flying once everything factored in – so I took the train. Now it’d cost me more to take the train in standard than it costs me to fly – so I fly.

    • Anna says:

      Is the travel time even increased by using the train? In my case, get to MAN airport 2 hours before the flight, park the car, taken the flight, get into central London, it’s certainly more time consuming than, say, going Preston – Euston which is my local rail option.

      • TGLoyalty says:

        Those countries do have an ancient culture if you look in the right places.

        Also as much as lots of people may dislike it a new culture is being “created” for want of a better word.

        The human race is evolving just like it always has.

      • John says:

        It probalby entirely depends on the proximity (and transport network proximity) of your house and your workplace to airports and train stations.

  • Ben says:

    I have to say that I’m one of the guilty ones, and along with a lot of other people on Flyertalk will regularly fly bizarre routes in order to increase the TP earned. I’ve never done a pure TP run, but on my regular LHR-JFK route I’ll often do HEL/DUB-LHR-PHL-BOS-JFK/LGA. Or when flying to the west coast fly HEL/DUB-LHR-JFK-LAX-SFO

    I feel guilty about the environmental impact, but keep doing it because I don’t *know* the true impact, I have a sense it’s bad but to what extent I have no idea. The stat the report mentions that a LHR-JFK return emits the same as heating a home for a year is shocking to me. Airlines should add a CO2 calculator to their booking pages to highlight the CO2 emitted by a route a suggesting a lower emission route (if available) or a way to properly offset the emissions.

    So I agree with the report – frequent flyer schemes do encourage bad behaviour, but until it’s really hammered home quite how bad it is, I don’t think i’d stop.

    • Ollie says:

      Ben, you could try this website to have an idea of the impact you we are all having … http://www.shameplane.com

      I would say that my primary reason for collecting is to save money. If someone offers me something for spending my money which I was going to do anyway (eshopping for instance) I will take miles and then they can save me money on flights. I agree though that airlines need to do everything they can to encourage more transparency but equally so does the government to find alternative greener solutions .. and promote more staycations rather than allowing low cost carriers to have 1p sales.

  • Andrew says:

    The public generally like to be presented with solutions to their problems without needing to change anything in their lives. Which is why this story has taken off in the press – the other solutions such as only having one kid have of course been buried as no one likes the idea of that as that would affect far more people.

    • Sussex Bantam says:

      Exactly ! Its always great if we can solve all of or problems by forcing someone else to change their behaviour…

      • Lady London says:

        Plus there’s pitting various classes of thé country against each other so as to divert attention from thé cluster… that is Brexit…. Class warfare and envy being used here. Even better when champagne socialists and the trendy can get soundbites out of it.

    • Yorkieflyer says:

      Exactly, people won’t make choices that would impact greatly on them, the number of folk driving Chelsea tractors with broods of resource gobbling youngsters in tow who think nothing of criticising my flying is priceless

  • Tony says:

    I don’t get it. Put more tax on fuel, then bob’s your uncle.

    • memesweeper says:

      Sadly taxing fuel in the tanks of arriving planes is banned under international treaty.

      We could, and should, tax the fuel on sale in the UK, but you want a *lot* of other countries to follow suit. if that happens you can start ratcheting up.

  • Burgess says:

    I think while all these are items listed in the report are nice “nudges”, it casually sweeps aside the biggest issue – population growth, as Rob points out on page 15 of the report.

    We’ve built economies based on pyramid schemes were we need growing populations to support the aging ones. But we’re going to reach a point where we one of those sci-fi movies will become reality because the earth won’t be able to support unsustainable human growth. Remember Logan Run? Everyone inside a protected dome lived a life of luxury until they were 30 and then “renewed (killed) “, while a secret group of elders lived out their lives in secrecy and comfort. That could be our future, where only a limited number of people can live on the planet. How does it get decided though? Warfare? Government troops turning on it’s citizens that it deems surplus to requirements (the old, the sick, the poor?)?

    China had the one child policy but has seen that the rest of the world isn’t doing it’s bit to control population and it is buying up farms and resources around the world that it will send back to feed it’s growing population. When the people of those countries realise that they have been sold out by their government, China will send in it’s troops to “protect and extract” it’s assets.

    Seriously, a few frequent flyers doing mileage runs is catastrophically miniscule compared to what damage is caused by human population growth. David Attenborough has touched on it, but the chattering classes are too busy distracted by minor items like immigration controls to see they need to stop having babies. One child or no child families should be rewarded going forward since this government wants to “nudge” us into things, but given the current (at time of writing) PM has an indefinite number of children, there’s no hope.

  • Sussex Bantam says:

    My company actually conducted a quite interesting real world experiment on this around 10 years ago.

    Based on a green-field site and faced with a shortfall in car park spaces they started to run mini-buses from nearby towns, stations etc. The buses ran every 15 minutes in the morning and the evening and, as an extra incentive, anyone who didn’t drive their car to work was paid an extra £5 per day. Effectively it was a charge for parking but dressed up as an incentive not to park.

    Now £5 per day doesn’t sound huge – but it is £25 a week and so £1,300 per year (ignoring time off). That was a significant pay rise for many people at the time.

    The take up was very low as people liked their personal space and the freedom of being able to arrive/leave whenever they wanted.

    It begs an interesting question – how much would you need to be paid/penalised to give up your car ? Or even just give up your car for a routine journey where there is a perfectly acceptable alternative ?

    • the_real_a says:

      Oddly similar to the experience of Smart Meters for energy in our homes. The academic reports suggested being able to see our live energy consumption would change behavior, however as it played out people generally have no interest in living in significant discomfort to save £50 a year.

      • Shoestring says:

        that was/ is mindless intervention by mindless people

        I know full well my fridge & TV cost money when they are switched on

        I’m not going to turn off either (well TV if it’s Sky News and some junk about frequent fliers)

        and it has cost gas/ elec buyers about £15 BILLION!