Are Frequent Flyer Miles A Tool Of Inequality?

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A Twitter user named Amanda Kolson Hurley has started quite a discussion in the past few days regarding frequent flyer miles.

Her claim? That frequent flyer miles are a tool of inequality, and that the system is “ridiculous.” As she Tweeted:

Frequent-flier miles are a tool of inequality. People who fly a lot for work (so overwhelmingly have high-status, well-paid jobs) then get free vacation travel for their families. It’s ridiculous when you think about it.

I wrote this post yesterday and was going to publish it today, but go figure in the meantime, after debating people on this topic for days, she deleted the original Tweet. I’ll still share my thoughts on this, because I think it’s a topic that’s interesting to look at in general.

While we’re on the topic, can I just briefly point out how annoying I find it that she decided to delete the original Tweet? She knew she was making an incredibly controversial point, then the topic became more popular than she was expecting, and then she deleted it?

I get people on the internet can be rude (maybe I’ve just been blogging too long?), but what did she expect when she started a controversial discussion on Twitter? And if she don’t like the direction the discussion is taking, can’t she just step away? Anyway…

So, why is Amanda dead wrong regarding frequent flyer miles?

Incorrect assumptions about people who travel a lot for work

Amanda is perhaps correct that people who fly a lot for work “overwhelmingly have high-status, well-paid jobs.” At least in the sense that they’re mostly college educated professionals, which puts them in the minority in our country.

But to me that’s not what’s relevant here. Among people with professional jobs, there’s not necessarily a correlation between those who travel a lot for work and those who don’t. There are “high-status, well-paid” professionals who never travel for work, and “high-status, well-paid” professionals who travel for work every week.

If anything, often more senior executives don’t have to travel — people will come to them. So I don’t think the correlation between traveling for work and having a “high-status, well-paid” job is relevant.

Frequent travel takes a toll on your life

Amanda seems to think that the average person who travels for work all the time is putting up their feet in first class and having a great time while traveling.

Not only is that typically nowhere near the truth, but it also doesn’t even begin to address the huge toll that frequent business travel takes on peoples’ lives — it’s terrible for your health, terrible for your social life, and terrible for your family life.

Sure, if you ask someone who is new to frequent business travel what they think, they may like it. But for most people it gets old.

People who spend a lot of time away from home are making a lot of sacrifices. Their families are also making big sacrifices by supporting it. So a small reward like frequent flyer miles is hardly something to get upset about. If anything, the families of frequent business travelers deserve it.

Frequent flyer programs aren’t costing consumers or companies anything

Frequent flyer programs, at least in the US, are mostly profitable businesses in and of themselves.

When it comes to rewarding people for travel, they’re a marketing tool. They’re intended to incentivize people to choose one airline over another. However, the truth is that they’re not really costing anyone anything. The employer isn’t paying extra for you to earn miles, and similarly, the airline doesn’t charge you extra to earn miles.

The airlines have been able to create programs that are lucrative, and thanks to their credit card agreements and other partnerships, they make money on these programs. Without the airline association, chances are these programs wouldn’t be as successful.

You might say “well couldn’t they pass on the savings to passengers if they eliminated them?” No, they’d probably spend that money marketing in another way. Or are airline advertisements also a tool of inequality?

Companies spend money to attract customers. That’s what frequent flyer programs are. It’s no different than Starbucks’ rewards program, or any other.

You can travel “for free” as well

Amanda is very much taking a victim mentality when it comes to frequent flyer programs. Frequent flyer programs are a tool of inequality, and only rich people can get “free” vacations with their families. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

If you maximize your credit card rewards you could travel in first or business class internationally for next to nothing. Maybe Amanda should start reading the blog. ????

Though I guess an argument could also be made that credit cards are a significantly bigger tool of inequality than frequent flyer programs. Generally people who are better off have more access to credit cards, and isn’t the cost of purchases being raised by a couple of percent due to merchant fees? It’s quite literally those without access to credit cards subsidizing those with credit cards.

Similarly, isn’t Starbucks Rewards a tool of inequality? To put that into a Tweet:

Starbucks Rewards is a tool of inequality. People who drink a lot of expensive coffee (so overwhelmingly fairly well off people) then get more free coffee. It’s ridiculous when you think about it.

Or not…

The one aspect of frequent flyer miles that is unreasonable

There’s one major concern that people should have about how people use frequent flyer programs when traveling on their employers’ dime. Specifically, with most airlines now awarding miles based on how much you spend rather than how much you fly, it encourages people not traveling on their own dime to overspend for their own personal gain.

It’s tough to say how many people really do that, but that is an issue, because people have the incentive to spend more than they need to in order to earn more miles. You’d think more corporations would take issue with this.

Bottom line

There are lots of sources of inequality in the world. How you feel about that inequality probably varies significantly based on your political leanings. Regardless of your general philosophy on this stuff, hopefully we can agree that the inequality created by frequent flyer programs is pretty close to being at the bottom of the list.

It’s not only rich people who travel a lot for work, and quite to the contrary, constantly being on the road is tolling and largely undesirable work. Being away from your family can be tough, and for the most part business travelers are on much tighter expense accounts than in the past. It’s not as glamorous as you may assume.

If someone earns enough points from their business travel to take their spouse or kids on a trip at some point, given how much time they spend apart from them, I say that’s a darn good thing.

And best of all, you really don’t have to be rich or travel a lot for work to earn rewards that can get you “free” travel. A single credit card welcome bonus could be enough to get you an international business class trip. Give it a try, Amanda, and report back to us!