The Frequent Flyer’s Quagmire
Exactly what do you, as a frequent flyer, give up when “status” trumps all else?
I wish, after reading various frequent flyer blogs, I had a quarter for every time I’d read about someone going on a “mileage run” otherwise known as taking needless trips, needless stops, and generally going out of their way in search of frequent flyer miles, “Elite Qualifying Points,” or some other reason to just spend time frivolously, padding the frequent flyer account. For that matter, I wish I had the time I personally wasted doing “mileage runs.” I, too, am guilty of flying from Providence, RI, to Miami, FL, via Houston. In my past life as an employee of the pharmaceutical industry, I did it. I will say I saw a “mileage run” posted the other day that basically took someone from Miami up to Boston, through Chicago and Seattle on their way to Santa Barbara. And I’ve known at least one person who went to Anchorage and one to Milan, Italy, and their stay was less than four hours. The one person who flew to MXP reported being hassled because no one could quite comprehend why he had just landed and was ready to head back to the States. I wouldn’t necessarily have hassled the person from a security or drug running standpoint. Instead, I would have wondered (and hassled) “Why would you waste your most precious commodity you own, time, on something so silly?”
So, there are two questions that come to my mind. First is, “Exactly where are a person’s values when they spend time like this?” and the second is, “When we buy air transportation, exactly what are we buying?”
The first question, for me, is easy.
I know in my life, there are many things replaceable and at least one thing that is not. I can get cars, clothing, money, houses, books back…etc. One thing I know I can’t get back is TIME. Time is finite. The number of heartbeats a person has, the amount of time to enjoy the company of a loved one, of a friend, is finite. It’s not replaceable. It comes and passes but one time. This alone leads me to the conclusion the concept of a “mileage run” is silly. The fact I would miss time with my wife, with loved ones, with my friends, doing something I want to do, is enough to quash the short sighted idea of a “mileage run.” At least one that involves multiple time zones and airplanes.
And for what reason do frequent flyers do those “mileage runs?” For that all mighty “status” that gives them the ability to get that first class seat, or the emergency exit row seat, or the bonus frequent flyer miles. All the while, two things happen. The first, and perhaps saddest, that person loses valuable time. Time that is irreplaceable. Time that they can never get back.
The second, and perhaps, in a strange twist, they surrender and accept a transportation product that is not just imperfect, but often flawed. The “mileage run” flies in the face (if you’ll pardon the pun) of what a person is actually buying: transportation! When I read these blogs and stories, I invariably ask, time and time again, “Are these people buying frequent flyer miles or are they buying transportation?” I dare say, frequent flyer crazies have lost sight of the reason to spend money with an airline!
Southwest Airlines (WN) exploited this and exposed airlines first in the 1990s when their “legacy” cousins had silly and stupid pricing policies, supported by a lack of competition as well as a public that was all too happy to purchase a subpar product, in the name of “status and frequent flyer miles.” WN took their legacy cousins to the hoop, simplified the product, made the value proposition of the product quantifiable, and actually thumbed their collective noses at the big boys. I for one am glad. I love the airline, but that’s not what this piece is about.
With nothing other than a GREAT positioning, WN made their place in aviation known and felt: ”You are buying a seat, a means of getting from point A to point B” and then they over-delivered. Suddenly, they are first in domestic passengers emplaned, and getting bigger and better. And those legacy cousins of WN who don’t understand or believe that “international travel is in their sights,” I would warn you not to be naïve.
And then there are other carriers, carriers like Midwest Airlines (YX) and Icelandair (FI) who, with a very small and very limited reach offer a product, often vastly superior, to their Goliath-like cousins. For less money than nearly any competitor, a person can fly FI from BOS/JFK/YYZ to many points in Northern and Western Europe. In the case of YX, from MKE or MCI, a person can get to a number of places and for the same price, if not a lesser price. My trips on FI and YX include a much more personalized service: better food, better drinks, better seats, better everything. Let’s face it, these little guys MUST work harder to provide a better value proposition, since they can’t compete with “global networks” and frequent flyer alliances. They understand, at the core of their existence, a very good, if not excellent product, must exist. Therefore, they are selling a transportation product, not frequent flyer miles.
And with WN? Oh my goodness, a person can purchase and have a better product in many ways. In fact, I believe the boarding process WN has is the best in aviation. The seat pitch, when you must fly coach, is very good. And let’s not forget, as opposed to a “Barbie Jet” or a God-forsaken CRJ (otherwise known as “Satan’s Chariot”) you get a REAL airplane with space, a friendly and fun crew, and perhaps most importantly, none of those insane $150 change fees.
Yet, my brothers and sisters out there, when offered the choice, opt to fly their Goliath carrier in search of that added segment, or those bonus miles, in hopes of getting that first class seat. And I for one, do NOT get it. It’s almost like they say, “I know it’s more segments, harder to get there, a lesser product, but I’m buying frequent flyer miles, not transportation!” Think about it, for goodness sake.
Now to be sure, I appreciate loyalty. I am a loyal and loving fan of Continental Airlines and I do try to fly them. And I’m loyal to Southwest Airlines and to Icelandair. So I understand loyalty. And I understand “status.” I happen to be a Platinum member of Continental’s One Pass program. I fly enough, I’m elite on DL and US as well, and this year, there’s a good chance I’ll make, in addition, WN’s “A-List” as well as FI’s “Saga Silver” program. So I get that.
And, to take it one step further, “status” does enter into my mind when purchasing. But it doesn’t cloud my vision. Is making Platinum on CO something that I want to do? You bet it is, but will I fly from PVD to FLL via ANC to do it? No way.
Here is a brief list of things travelers, customers, and employers lose as a result of this idea that status trumps all things in air travel.
TIME– The ultimate loss. The traveler him or herself loses valuable time. The employer does too as well. I wonder what an employer would think of their employee flying from BOS to MIA via DEN? Think it’s absurd? Think again. It happens. I read about people doing this type of crazy thing ALL the time. Again, I feel worse for the traveler, him or herself who places this silly value above their time. And I feel for the family and friends as well.
PRODUCT QUALITY – Here’s the thing I’m certain travelers DO NOT realize: “When you put ‘status’ and frequent flyer points as your reason to buy, you surrender, to an airline, the demand for a high quality product. What you are essentially saying is, “I’ll take the points over the actual product.” And folks, WHAT are we buying here? A seat? Air travel? Or frequent flyer points?
MONEY – OK, so if you need to fly SEA-LAX and can do it for roughly the same price via MCI that you do direct, see the rationale above, and remember, “Time is money.” I really wonder, “Is it really less expensive?” I also wonder, “How many people spend more money (and time) flying their “favorite” airline to get the points or be upgraded when they can save both time and money and fly another airline? How many times does a traveler pick an airline that is charging $20 more for the points as opposed to the time of the service? I would be frightened to know that stat. (The airlines, of course, bank on it.)
Truth is, I could go on, but I think you get the point. The “price you pay” for “status” and frequent flyer points is very, very high. Can we put a price on a commodity such as “time” that is irreplaceable? I think not. And is it really a good deal to surrender product quality in the name of “points?” Apparently, for some it is, I would argue, “NO WAY!” And finally, if you lose time and product quality, are you really saving money? I think not.
Are there times when a “mileage run” can make sense? Certainly. For example, if I were within 2,000 miles of getting to CO Platinum, it were December, and I had no more trips planned, might I try to go see my mother in Kansas City and thereby generate the 2,000 EQMs? Certainly. Provided the timing and price made sense. I will assure any reader, I’ve skipped flying my favorite airlines and flown carriers I’m a “nothing” on in order to save time and money. And I’ve skipped my normal carriers, like CO or WN domestically, to fly a carrier I love, like YX. In fact, as I type this I’m on an YX flight from SFO-MCI. Might be my only YX flight this year and I’m sacrificing a couple thousand points and segments I would have received flying CO through IAH, or UA through DEN. But I’m saving my time and frankly, getting a vastly superior product. I can’t put a price tag on my time and being in a clean, comfortable “Signature Seat” makes my time that much more enjoyable, even with the knowledge I very well could miss Platinum on CO.
Finally, because of how I value time and money, I will say, “status,” while important to me, is actually down the list in my reasons I buy air travel. As time is my first and most important commodity, I’m not afraid to “put my money where my mouth is” and buy first class service or fares that are instantly upgradeable, thereby not being at the mercy of those hard to snag “unlimited, complimentary upgrades.” In fact, when I travel more than four hours on an airplane, for the most part, I won’t accept sitting in coach, because without some space, I can’t work. Therefore, I pay the price. And because of that, “status” suddenly becomes less valuable. But in my world, “time” is the one commodity that is priceless. And “product quality,” or the “value proposition” offered is not far behind.
In summary, I find it strange, almost bizarrely troubling how frequent flyers place values on their priorities. It always makes me pause and want badly to really understand how that “extra segment” or that “extra 10-hour trip from CLT-MXP via DCA & PHL” is more important than time with loved ones.
But in the ultimate twist, it really makes me struggle to understand why travelers will accept a subpar product, and endorse it, in search of the almighty segment or frequent flyer status.