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. Lady London says:

    Hey Rob you did not use your VS Gold after that one flight but you did use the Regus thing? I thanks you profoundly for that one.

    Incidentally I’m still a customer of Regus too, since then. It’s very useful.

    • I did get a Regus, although I had another couple of those from various other places 🙂 Did mean I didn’t ever need to worry about not having a card available though!

  2. Humans are very good at justifying their actions against direct evidence. Environmental issues are a classic example – people throw up their hands and say ‘not me, guv’ or ‘someone else is worse than me’ even though they know they are at fault.

    We know flying is bad for the planet. We know that flying premium classes is even worse yet people are spouting off various facts about China or hand dryers to try to make themselves appear reasonable to others (or even themselves). Technically, Rob is correct that a very small percentage of flyers are doing TP runs, but I’ll wager that a very large percentage of the readership of this site are making unnecessary trips. This could be starting ex-EU, this could be flying via DOH to pick up extra TPs, it could be taking an extra overseas holiday for TPs or it could just be flying a premium class that you otherwise wouldn’t/couldn’t afford.

    Of course several of these arise due to unintended consequences of taxation (APD is no doubt the cause for a lot of ex-EU flights) or just the way businesses work (charging less for a connecting flight to compete against a direct flight).

    I hold my hands up and say that the premium flights I take (usually 1 long haul per year) would either not be made, or be made in economy were it not for airmiles. From this year and going forwards I will be offsetting my CO2 via the voluntary payment options the airlines offer.

    I would really like Rob to strongly advocate this offsetting option on this blog, I would like to see the whole EU get serious on taxing aviation so the ex-EU advantage goes away and I would like to see UK airports (especially LHR and LGW) introduce much higher landing fees for any aircraft older in design than the Dreamliner as this would force airlines to utilise cleaner aircraft into London or face being unable to compete on price.

    • “flying a premium class that you otherwise wouldn’t/couldn’t afford” – listen to yourself! So it’s not an unnecessary trip if you can afford it?

      • I think it’s you who needs to be doing the listening… It’s incredibly obvious that the unnecessary bit is being in the premium cabin (and therefore responsible for more emissions), not just being on the flight…

        A very good point I would say, given the purpose of this website seems to be getting people into those seats more than they’d otherwise be able to.

        The never ending objections on here to the wealthier not being allowed to pollute more than everyone else is rather grotesque selfishness in my book. Though that presumably doesn’t apply to you as you seem to fall either into the exceptionally arrogant (“I know more about the climate than climate scientists do”) or conspiracy theory nutter category, where such a position would be moral given you apparently don’t accept flying influences the climate anyway.

        • “The never ending objections on here to the wealthier not being allowed to pollute more than everyone else is rather grotesque selfishness in my book.”

          Presumably that covers flying in general then given the average UK citizens take on average 2 flights per year while Indian citizens take 0.08

          • Yes. It does. So?

          • Just a bit of context. I think there is an impression in the western world that a subtle change in behaviour to slightly reduce our individual impact here is in some way enough to have done our bit.

            Everyone who currently flies first or business switching to economy for the same flight would have much less of an impact on CO2 than everyone in the western world reducing their flight numbers to that of the average Indian citizen.

            I’m not promoting that as a solution either, I’m simply sitting on the fence and observing we’re all chatting about something at the margin of the issue.

        • Do not use the term “nutter” mental health is a serious issue and I would have thought someone like you would be FULLY aware of it!

    • memesweeper says:

      If you’re going to offset consider using a non-airline sponsored scheme by default and do your own research. Some of the schemes are brilliant, others more like green washing. Use your funds wisely for guilt-free travel!

    • I’m skeptical how much carbon credits really achieve. In extremis, they involve things like paying people not to cut down trees. Yes, you really can claim a carbon credit on paying someone not to cut down trees in the rainforest.

      • the_real_a says:

        They are useful if carefully designed. Often the easiest industries to clean up are those with low margins, however by organically spending relatively small amounts 2-3% in costs would render them out of business. The most difficult to clean up are those with significant barriers to entry and huge fixed costs – say steel making. So in practice and one theoretical proposal i am familiar with – would allow a steel works to offset their carbon by buying a supermarkets carbon credits. The supermarket would then invest/subsidise electric lorries for its distribution business. The sum of carbon across both businesses is reduced. Over time you make carbon credits more expensive to promote further reductions as technology allows.

        The elephant in the room is obviously worldwide cooperation is required. Currently in our production lines (highly automated) China is only 10% cheaper than the UK despite public perception being otherwise. If UK energy taxes were reduced to that of China the cost advantage would be practically eliminated when you factor in risk/control into the business plan. The risk is higher environmental taxes simply make business quietly walk to the east. Sure, country level carbon is reduced, but so are Jobs/GDP and the same dirty business is being done elsewhere.

        • Claiming that you can offset carbon emissions by persuading someone not to emit carbon that they shouldn’t have been emitting anyway is not a path to zero emissions.

          We need to take not cutting down rainforests as a given – we can’t somehow claim that stopping cutting down rainforests somehow justifies contributing to fly – which is what the current model of carbon offsets seems to be saying

          • Shoestring says:

            it’s chemically not very difficult to sequester carbon, just costs money

            very easy to offset carbon/ emissions – we/ you just have to pay for it, which happens to be the stumbling point

          • Right, Shoestring, It could be done, but the current carbon credit schemes don’t do anything like this.

            Even schemes that plant trees are problematic, because AIUI they calculate the entire CO2 that the trees will sequester over their lifetimes and account it all up front, allowing carbon that will be sequestered decades from now to be offset against current emissions.

            There’s a reason that carbon offsets are currently so ludicrously cheap – and it’s not because solving the problem really is ludicrously cheap.

    • Surely one can afford to fly premium cabins if they can acquire enough air miles as air miles as just a digital currency of sorts.

  3. What I find most interesting here in the comment section is how quickly the opinions even among miles collectors and frequent flyers have changed. I can’t imagine we would have reacted the way we did today, had this proposal been published and discussed here in 2012.

  4. Henry Young says:

    Climate is a globalists’ hoax. The playbook goes like this – hype up global problems, persuade everyone of the need for global solutions, create global institutions, run them with global elites. hence why teenagers are getting boated across the Atlantic (boat and crew hired for a fee) and people are dressing up in silly costumes all over London – paid for by who ??? Follow the money !!! It used to be called global warming until the correlation between CO2 levels and temperature failed to stand up to scrutiny, let alone the small issue that water vapour is a way more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. Sure renewables are good, clean, ethical, etc. But please apply some critical thinking to the mass hysteria that is climate change. Recent research reveals that variation in solar activity is a way more dominant factor, and there’s rather little we can do about that !

    • Careful when you get near the edge of the world, you don’t want to fall off.

    • Indeed, global warming (which is a thing) has happened at various points in the history of the planet. During the Roman occupation of Britain in just a few years the temperature rose sufficiently for the Romans to start planting vines and making wine, yet they weren’t travelling by plane or decimating the rainforests.

      • That’s local warming, not global. The global average temperature in the period you are talking about was lower than today, most notably in South America.

    • There are 4 parts to “climate change”.

      1 – Is climate change happening? (Answer: yes)
      2 – Is climate change happening due to human activity? (Answer: >90% chance that it is)
      3 – Can we do anything about it? (Answer: yes)
      4 – Should we do these things?

      The answers to 3 range from things like carbon taxes to mass suicide. And they all involve predicting the future, which nobody can do. Also, we don’t know whether any of these things will work. We can make educated guesses but anyone who pretends they are absolutely certain wants to sell you something.

      The debate should be centered around issue 4, but people are wasting time talking about 1 and 2. Denying 1 and 2 just makes you look stupid.

  5. From Gössling and Cohen, 2014 (55 citations of which 12 are self cites)

    ‘….as many as 50,000 members of the organization FlyerTalk [..MAY..] go on mileage runs towards the end of the year to retain or attain elite airline status.’ (my emphasis on the word may).

    So the recommendation to withdraw frequent flyer programs is based on gossip? That’s not really enough of an argument for me to change my flying habits.

  6. ankomonkey says:

    What about petrol station loyalty schemes then? Take aim at those driving petrol-/diesel-fuelled sports cars and those involved in F1. I also bet Lewis Hamilton flies to the Singapore Grand Prix.

    • I think it’s incredibly obvious that people who push for a reduction in flying would also push for a reduction in driving. I’m not sure why you’d think they wouldn’t?

    • Quite, there’s a huge amount of hypocrisy here. We don’t hear the government lambasting athletes, the royals and others (including themselves!) for jetting off around the world, often at the tax payers’ expense. But have one or two well earned holidays per year which require air travel and you are singlehandedly melting the icecaps.

      • Well, a hundred athletes or politicians or royals+hangers-on is a bit different to a million holidaymakers.

      • Some of the hypocrisy is people that don’t want to hear things that mean they’d have to make changes. All of the points that say ‘but what about…..’ don’t change the underlying impact of flying.

        • Yep, I all for complete change. If aviation is taxed/ FF scheme abolished, so should red meat consumption, heating, etc. Apply it rigorously and then measure what has had the most impact!

          • IF your going to do that you also need to ban imports from China and other coal intensive countries, which I’m all for but it’s very far away from any mainstream politics.

            If anything we’re overlooking some horrendous behaviour in China so we can all still buy cheap, carbon intensive consumer goods.

  7. Hi Rob, thank you once again for your blog which is helpful to make business travel a bit more enjoyable – and collect some perks as a loyal customer.
    I think it’s a bit of a shame that you hadn’t read the report before your interview (you were telling us about your interview before it happened and when the report was already out).
    I’ve been thinking about what my key messages will be when I’m challenged about my flying habits:
    – it is important not to lose perspective: flying is only responsible for <2.5% of the world’s CO2 emissions
    – there are already heavy APD taxes on flights originating in the UK, especially in premium cabins (less in other countries) and air mikes flights are no longer free in the UK – on a recent reward flight LGW to Cancun, my taxes were over £600 per person. Also mileage run frequent flyers are the exception, not the rule.
    – BA has recently announced that all domestic UK flights will be carbon neutral from next year and that they are backing carbon neutrality for all flights by 2050. I am now starting to offset my carbon emissions but I am also worried about not being able to check that trees are actually planted – and would welcome the introduction of more transparent schemes
    See https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/oct/13/ba-carbon-offsetting-airline-industry

    Any thoughts?

    • Anyone “challenging” me will be told to piss off.

      The taxes charged by the UK on your Cancun flight were £176. The rest was mostly profit for BA minus about £40 to LGW airport to cover the costs of security screening, plus some minor amounts to Mexico.

      Carbon offsetting is a scam in itself. If planting trees is the right thing to do, we should be doing it anyway, without either needing to take some flights in order to “justify” planting trees, or regarding yourself as having carte blanche to fly as much as you like just because you plant trees for every flight you take.

      • TGLoyalty says:

        We should be planting tree’s ourselves and that has a cost (land, plants, management, protection) because lets face it humans are selfish and no where near the numbers required will do it all out of the goodness of their own hearts for free.

        Carbon offsetting is a contribution to funding people to be paid a reasonable wage to do the doing and the management/protection. I don’t get what the scam is?

        • It is a scam because (as the first John says) it is difficult to actively audit the process and it is likely that most of the money will not actually be used for the actual activity in question.

          • TGLoyalty says:

            Ah so we are saying the organisations are carrying out fraud. Then I hope they are investigated by the governments they are based and by the companies that fund them (I’m assuming BA will use a 3rd party and audit their work)

          • Unfortunately it is hard to imagine that carbon offsetting is not the biggest scam in the world. Feel free to pull out this quote in 3 years when the media gets around to focusing on it. NOTHING is more open to fraud than companies walking around going “we MUST give away £10m to stuff that can offset carbon, we’re desperate, who wants some?”.

            Much of it would be better used paying for free domestic solar panels etc – but of course we all know how that industry was overrun by con artists when the Government started hugely subsidising it ….

        • Little Pansey says:

          Take it your volunteering then…

      • This is the internet, the last bastilion of free thought. There are enough people trying to control it as it is John. HFP’s are usually considerate and respectful bunch and enjoy lively debate.

    • £600 in taxes?. NO absolutly not

      You paid £170 odd quid in APD and some airport fees and maybe some mexican government taxs as well. But the rest – well over half – is BA carrier surcharges

      You’ve been brainwashed by the airlines and the bloggers to assuming that all those ‘taxes’ really are tax ehen they aren’t

      Next time you do a booking look at the breakdown and you’ll soon be demanding proper descritions by the bloggers.

  8. the_real_a says:

    We must also look to the non-politically correct issues here. Approx 30-40% of all flights departing the UK are migrants who were born outside of the UK and are returning/visiting their place of birth. Freedom of movement and migration within the EU particularly has been one of the biggest drivers to pollution we have seen in centuries. I dont believe the report makes any mention of this.

    There is an increasing omission bias to these reports, particularly over the last 5 years that takes the “morally liberal” views of London folk as righteous and correct – points that stick out like a sore thumb to those outside the bubble. In fact, finding new academic research into non-politically correct areas are virtually impossible today even when required for legitimate non-political purposes.

    I am also struck that the definition of “unnecessary travel” in the debate for many is just outside ones own travel patterns.

    • Fat Cash says:

      Unnecessary travel plans is probably anything that is for leisure but even for business it’s only necessary for financial gain so depends if it’s necessary you have more money.

    • Care to back up with some evidence? I suppose Scots/Northern Irish travel around UK solely by train and/or never visit family/friends in other parts of UK.

      • the_real_a says:

        Not without disclosing clients which im not prepended to do. However, there are hints in Easyjet / Ryanair reports to analysts over the years with regard to passenger numbers and airport statistics (particularly in planning applications). Therein you bring up my second point. Just because there is no a public peer reviewed study does not mean its not true. The left/liberal bias of academia means research with a non-politically correct hypothesis 1) you cannot find a decent academic willing to take it on 2) If you could, its impossible to get it funded. Generally commissioned reports from market research companies with sensitive data remains private to the client. In today’s climate (no pun) its very important to avoid making conclusions based solely on the volume of data that is in the public domain.

        • memesweeper says:

          Join the security queue at Stansted on a weekday morning, it’s very different to Heathrow. It’s undeniably migrant heavy.

          Overseas students at British universities, and British students doing overseas segments in their degrees, probably account for 100x the emissions of mileage runners living in the UK. Why not ban that form of ‘unnecessary’ travel?

          I still think APD increases and fuel taxes are the way to go. Trying to pick winners in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ travel is just a fool’s errand. If it’s polluting, it’s bad.

    • Are we going to have to stop people from moving a certain distance from where they were born? Such a division would not apply in the same way in the US and Canada for instance, as people who are not form a certain state may need to fly to get home to see their families, an clearly not even a certain president is going to limit freedom of movement between states! Is a Scot going to be barred from moving to the West Country because of the distance?

      Meanwhile we do have rail systems in Europe.

  9. Little Pansey says:

    The whole thing is taken out of context probably by people with inside knowledge of how the loyalty points are accounted for.

    If I am choosing to have air miles vs cash back then the air miles have a cost to me so it’s not like they are being given to me for free.

    Using air miles for flights with short notice that aren’t full will have no impact on the climate as the flight would have been going with just less passengers.

    Fed up of people spouting the sam rhetoric they read in the daily mail over and over again without any knowledge or experience of their own.

    • It’s a report by disgruntled Imperial College academics whose employer bans them collecting miles/points on personal account when travelling for work.

      • Little Pansey says:

        Anyone who proposes banning loyalty schemes can get lost, it’s part of a businesses marketing strategy.

        It’s like saying to Rob stop promoting Amazon cos their packaging is too much and if his links didn’t promote Amazon less people would buy!

      • Lady London says:

        Have they not heard that Hilton will give them about 30% discount under the PPRN… promotional code for being employees of the government?

  10. I have wondered about the implications of reducing flying for Rob here, where his business relies on flying.

    Rob does promote railway offers, for instance when LNER are offering double value redemptions on Nectar points, and has mentioned the Eurostar redemptions with Amex points. However as points redemptions are otherwise fixed to cash price there isn’t much of interest. He could still promote more UK railway time-restricted offers, but admittedly that’s more about cash saving than spending points (there is a certain Martin Lewis for that).

    In terms of his own travel, flying direct to places rather than connecting can reduce carbon footprint a bit, go economy class (replacing business class seats with economy would fit more passengers, so overall CO2 emissions per person goes down), and take the train where possible. Indeed it might cost more for journeys, but it’s an opportunity for him to write a few articles about it too.

    And/or he could go vegan, that’ll slash his carbon footprint.

  11. I’ve slashed my carbon footprint simply by leaving my 300 bhp car parked up at home and using an app to get someone on a pedal bike to bring my dinner to my door instead. (I do genuinely know people that use Uber Eats etc. every night of the week if they are eating at home).

    I think we should ban supermarket loyalty schemes, it will encourage us to eat less.

    • Little Pansey says:

      How about we get educated about food more and fasting the body, people eat too much these days than they actually need.

      If everyone fasted 16 hours a day then this would save a lot of co2.

      If people fasted for 48 hours once a week, the savings all round would be huge!

      This would be a 28% reduction is consumption of food which would have a larger impact throughout the supply chain. The only ones missing out would be the suppliers profits.

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