The airline business is an intricate and multi-faceted industry, especially for unassuming flyers. In an earlier blog post, I wrote about the complexities of the wireless carrier industry and how those companies have adapted to rapid technological advances over recent years. Aviation fits the bill for this description too, with a healthy side of ins-and-outs designed to maximize carrier profits, often at the flyer’s expense.
Over the years though, airlines have become more consumer-centric, with the philosophy that more engaged and happy customers will be more valuable to the airline. Those loyalty programs you sign up for and forget about can be quite lucrative, and the miles you accumulate through flights you’re already taking can add up to something truly worthwhile. You might be rolling your eyes while reading this, thinking that the airline propaganda has gotten the better of me, but there is a lot of money in the airline rewards business — if you play your cards right.
What’s in it for you?
Depending on the type of flyer you are, getting value out of your purchases may be more attainable than you think. And, of course, there’s plenty for the airlines to gain from you too.
The First Time Flyer
Airlines have more to gain from you than you do from the airline. You’ve just learned that anything more than a middle seat costs extra. Your carry-on has every prohibited item going and is probably as big as your costly checked bag. You haven’t developed your boarding etiquette yet, but you fell for the “perks” of priority boarding. The sound of a $4 water bottle, $10/hr Wi-Fi, and $5 bag of chips sound strange, yet perfectly reasonable at the same time.
Aside from these incidental fees, though, the airlines aren’t celebrating your presence all that much (not yet, at least). The real value in a flyer comes from loyalty — and that’s where the frequent flyer programs come in. The general practice of wooing a new customer to build loyalty isn’t unique to the airline industry by any means, but loyalty sure has its perks when you’re flying at 10,000 feet. More on this later.
The Occasional/Non-committed Flyer
Aka, ballin’ on a budget. These flyers go right to Google Flights or Expedia to find the cheapest flight. Even the dreaded Spirit Airlines is an option (think a glorified tin can in the air). They might have a preference for a particular airline, but price tends to outweigh any of the perks that might come with that airline.
As an aside, here are the major U.S. airlines, with notable features of each:
- American Airlines. The world’s largest airline, American and U.S. Airways joined forces several years ago in a surprising mega merger. They recently unveiled Basic Economy and boasted the fact that customers are now paying more for less.
- Delta Air Lines. Runner-up to American in global scale, Delta’s slogan is “building a better airline, not just a bigger one.” In my experience, Delta’s overall experience (as an occasional, non-committed flyer) is far better than American’s, though the frequent flyer tiers are more abundant on American than on Delta. Delta offers Basic Economy fares for the price-conscious consumer as well.
- United Airlines. United’s mission to “fly the friendly skies” has been called into question with a string of corporate crises over the past year, with a doctor being dragged off of an oversold flight topping the list. However, United has since rolled out significant policy changes to improve its customer service; having flown United both before and after this incident, I’ve noticed a difference — I was generously compensated (without even contacting the airline) for a minor delay and inoperable Wi-Fi while en route. United also offers Basic Economy fares.
- JetBlue Airways. What’s not to love? Free snacks, free Wi-Fi, the most legroom in coach (no, I’m not a paid spokesperson), and a customer-first business model are some of the perks JetBlue has to offer. However, as with all airlines, JetBlue has retracted on some of its key differentiating factors, such as that beloved extra legroom and that free checked bag.
- Southwest Airlines. Perfect for the overpackers of the world, Southwest offers a generous two free checked bags for every customer. They also differentiate themselves with a first-come-first-board queueing system, and they let you pick any open seat at the time you board the plane.
The “Frequent” Flyer
If you patronize your favorite airline enough, they’ll patronize you right back. Hence why JetBlue’s new Mosaic program offers dedicated check-in and free alcoholic drinks (#lit), Delta’s four-tiered Medallion program provides first class ticket upgrades and SkyClub access, and American’s highest of four AAdvantage statuses is valued at close to a whopping $7,500 in benefits. Of course, once you’ve spent such a large amount of money with a single airline, committing your loyalty is seemingly effortless, and airlines go to great lengths to keep you (and your money) for as long as possible.
What about the Average Joe?
While elite status is largely reserved for frequent travelers (aka, “business people”), lower-tier rewards programs are well within reach, even for the occasional traveler.
For example, I only fly a dozen or so times a year, but I take advantage of airline credit cards (which is a story for another day). Not only does this help establish loyalty with your preferred airline, but it also helps you enjoy perks right out of the gate. For example, by flying Delta and JetBlue over the years, and taking advantage of Delta SkyMiles and JetBlue TrueBlue bonuses through their respective credit cards, I’ve been able to:
- Fly back from Mardi Gras on JetBlue with accumulated points — a $600 flight otherwise;
- Travel to Washington, D.C. on JetBlue to witness the Presidential inauguration with a friend who studied in the city; and
- Fly roundtrip from Boston to Rome, Italy using just Delta SkyMiles — a flight that would have otherwise costed $1,200.
As you book your next flight, take a second look at that airline’s rewards program. Those miles accumulating virtual dust might be of value — perhaps you can use them to forge a bond that’s rewarding in the long-term for both you and the airline. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll one day be the high roller you never thought you’d be — just let me know when so I can fly with you for free.
Further reading: The Points Guy is an incredible resource for up-to-date airline news, rewards valuations, and tips for maximizing your credit card use for free flights. I learned much about the airline industry from their New York City-based team. I highly recommend reading their articles: https://thepointsguy.com/