Do frequent flyer programs encourage travelers to take more flights than they need to? Should the small subset of road warriors who take the majority of flights be taxed for their excessive flying? That’s what a government-sanctioned climate report advocates for in the UK.
And to that, I first ask:
- Who defines need?
- Who defies excessive?
The report, commissioned by the UK Committee of Climate Change, outlines several proposals to reduce carbon emission, including banning frequent flyer program. The study, conducted by Dr. Richard Carmichael of London’s Imperial College, suggests:
Introducing restrictions to…loyalty schemes which offer air miles would remove incentives to excessive or stimulated flying.
I will stipulate that banning frequent flyer programs would reduce flying. Heck, it would probably cut over 100,000 miles/year from my own flying. I am also happy to stipulate that a small minority takes the majority of flights. That is often the nature of any consumed commodity.
Finally, I’ll give the study credit for trying to think outside the box and propose measures that, in its estimation, would slow the proliferation of climate change. Such efforts, even if ultimately futile, should be lauded. Everyone should seek to be a good steward of the Earth.
A Flawed Approach To Climate Change
But the study represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the way frequent flyer programs historically operate and a profound underestimate of the upside of widespread, affordable airfare.
Frequent flyer programs specialize in offering seats to flyers that would otherwise go empty. That’s a broad generalization, but the very nature of so-called “saver” seats is that airlines believes the seat would otherwise not sell. The addition of one passenger on a flight that will operate anyway has a marginal, if not negligible, impact on the environment. Every single one of my award flights this year has been on a flight with open seats.
Even as frequent flyer programs are trending toward a more revenue-based redemption model, such programs help to fill airplanes, not increase the number of flights. Do climate activists really want to go back to the era in which load factors were 50-70% instead of 80-95%?
Frequent flyer programs also represents an emergency savings account, perfect for unexpected last-minute trips. Few things make the death of a loved one worse than spending thousands of dollars for a last-minute trip to the hospital bed or funeral. Frequent flyer miles help at the most critical times, often providing outsized value (12,500 miles or $600 for a ticket…hmm).
Why Flying Should Be Encouraged
Secondly, the practical result of eliminating frequent flyer programs, taxing cheap flights, and generally discouraging flying is that flying would revert to a luxury of the wealthy.
One of the great upsides to the proliferation of flying, particularly budget flying, is its democratizing effect. What a wonderful world we live in where cheap flying has made it possible for a huge additional subset of the population to see the world. Travel opens your eyes; it builds empathy, encourages understanding, defeats bigotry, and encourages peace. On a global scale, travel makes broader and more unified approaches to climate change possible by allowing us to stand in the shoes of others and better appreciate the consequences of our actions.
This proposal is dead on arrival, at least in terms of banning frequent flyers programs, so our discussion is merely for the sake of discussion. Still, we will see more proposals like this going forward. I may be just be a cynical pessimist, but I think our efforts are better spent planning for life and creating jobs in a warming world. Humans are innovative creatures. I’m confident we can figure it out. But we should do so not only smartly, but realistically.