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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)

  • Eric says:

    Just to put it in perspective. Eg Heineken produce over 3 billion bottles of lager worldwide. Can you appreciate the amount of Carbon Dioxide which is produced as a reult of fermentation? I want to enjoy my life surely the way forward is to invest in research so we can remove green house gasses rather than banning everything worht living for! Yes I do mean collecting air miles and spending them!

    • ThinkSquare says:

      The CO2 released from fermentation is carbon-neutral because it is just releasing what was taken from the atmosphere a few months earlier when the grain grew. The problem with fossil fuels is that they are quickly releasing what was taken over millions of years.

  • 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.

    • Rob says:

      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!

  • Kiran says:

    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.

    • Anna says:

      “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?

      • Callum says:

        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.

        • will says:

          “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

          • Crafty says:

            Yes. It does. So?

          • will says:

            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.

        • Bazza says:

          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!

    • Roy says:

      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.

        • Roy says:

          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

          • Roy says:

            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.

    • Hak says:

      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.

  • HAM76 says:

    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.

  • 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 !

    • Doug M says:

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

    • Anna says:

      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.

      • Timbo says:

        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.

    • John says:

      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.

  • Russ says:

    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.

  • 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.

    • Callum says:

      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?

    • Anna says:

      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.

      • John says:

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

      • Doug M says:

        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.

        • meta says:

          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!

          • will says:

            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.

  • John says:

    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?

    • John says:

      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?

        • John says:

          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)

          • Rob says:

            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…

      • Russ says:

        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.

    • ChrisC says:

      £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.

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