Senators Probe How Airlines Make Money From Frequent Flyer Programs

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WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 03: U.S. Senate Majority Whip Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) listens during a ... [+] news convention connected Capitol Hill December 3, 2009 successful Washington, DC. The Democratic Senate leaders held a news convention connected really nan Healthcare Reform Bill will thief nan system and create jobs. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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U.S. Senators person asked regulators to look into hose predominant flyer programs and find whether they are adjacent to consumers. Airline loyalty programs are designed to connection predominant flyers an exclusive acquisition while keeping airlines profitable. Sometimes, balancing nan needs of top-tier members pinch worth for each loyalty programme participants tin present mixed results.

But are airlines unfairly gaming nan strategy that keeps them profitable?

That’s what Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas want to know. Both person asked nan Transportation Department and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to analyse user complaints connected airlines’ predominant flyer and loyalty programs.

Flying Makes Airlines Less Profit Than Starbucks

Airlines developed loyalty programs because they don’t gain overmuch from flying group from constituent A to constituent B. The International Air Transport Association expects nan mixed nett profits of airlines to scope $9.8 cardinal successful 2023, which is an mean 1.2% nett profit margin. That is simply a marked betterment reflecting recreation betterment from nan COVID-19 pandemic and much than double IATA’s erstwhile forecast, made astatine nan extremity of past year, of $4.7 cardinal successful nett profits.

But it is still importantly little than nan $19.9 cardinal profit Apple AAPL declared conscionable for nan 3rd 4th of this year. The world’s airlines mixed make little profits than Starbucks SBUX , which reported $23.83 cardinal for nan financial twelvemonth ending June 30, 2023.

According to IATA, connected average, airlines hardly make capable per rider to screen a cup of coffee.

“Economic uncertainties person not dampened nan desire to travel, moreover arsenic summons prices absorbed elevated substance costs,” IATA’s Director General, Wilie Walsh, said during nan IATA Annual General Meeting this summer. “After heavy COVID-19 losses, moreover a nett profit separator of 1.2% is thing to celebrate! But pinch airlines conscionable making $2.25 per rider connected average, repairing damaged equilibrium sheets and providing investors pinch sustainable returns connected their superior will proceed to beryllium a situation for galore airlines.”

Loyalty Tops Airline Ancillaries

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 02: (L-R) Eva Reda, Executive Vice President & GM Partnerships & ... [+] Product American Express, Actress Elizabeth Olsen, and Sandeep Dube, CEO of Delta Vacations and SVP Loyalty, Delta Air Lines, airs during nan American Express and Delta Air Lines #DeltaAmex Card Relaunch arena astatine 14th Street Garage connected October 02, 2019 successful New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for American Express)

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To survive, airlines dress up nan quality pinch ancillary sales. These see a la carte services for illustration privilege seating, baggage fees, and nutrient and beverages sold connected board, arsenic good arsenic their loyalty programs. According to a caller CarTrawler and IdeaWorksCompany projection, hose ancillary gross will summation to $117.9 cardinal worldwide successful 2023. That’s a important summation complete nan $102.8 cardinal for 2022 and thumps nan pre-pandemic grounds of $109.5 cardinal successful 2019.

The biggest ancillary gains from airlines travel from their loyalty programs. Frequent flyer programs, whether counted arsenic points aliases miles, make aggregate income streams. Airlines gain gross erstwhile in installments paper companies bargain points aliases miles to rumor branded cardholders. Airlines besides gain gross by trading loyalty points to different partners, for illustration hotels, car rental companies, manner brands, and retailers. According to loyalty programme analysts IdeaWorksCompany, nan “15 apical performing airlines disclosed a year-over-year predominant flyer programme gross summation of $8.3 cardinal for 2022.”

American Airlines Takes The Lead connected Loyalty

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 28: Citi and American Airlines coming Grammy Award-winning set ... [+] Imagine Dragons unrecorded astatine nan Hollywood Palladium, exclusively for Citi / AAdvantage cardmembers connected September 28, 2015 successful Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Citi)


The apical performers among loyalty programs worldwide are each U.S. carriers, pinch American Airlines successful nan lead. AAdvantage was nan world’s 2nd hose loyalty program, introduced successful 1981, building connected nan conception first developed by Texas International Airlines. American Airlines made $5.8 cardinal successful predominant flyer gross successful 2022, an mean of $29.10 per passenger.

Delta, Southwest, United, and Alaska travel successful nan 2022 loyalty gross rankings each starring by a wide separator complete their world competitors.

Frequent Flyer Revenue Analysis 2022, from nan Airline Ancillary Yearbook by IdeaWorksCompany and ... [+] CarTrawler.


Points And Miles Aren’t Currency

Since they tin beryllium exchanged for equipment and services, points and miles mightiness beryllium perceived arsenic a shape of currency. But they aren’t a genuine rate because they can’t beryllium traded for equipment aliases services extracurricular nan loyalty program. They’re still valuable, but their worth varies successful keeping pinch nan rewards available. This is existent of each loyalty rewards, not conscionable hose programs—everything from nan aged greenish stamps to punch aliases stamp cards astatine restaurants to integer credits and points for different transactions.

Loyalty programs are based connected nan rule that consumers will walk much and return to nan marque if they get thing extra. The worth of that “extra” is wished by user perception. The costs to nan institution of granting nan “extra” varies depending connected existent marketplace costs. Earning a free cup of java from Starbucks differs successful perceived user worth from earning a formation connected Delta Air Lines. Likewise, nan costs to Starbucks and Delta of offering those rewards disagree significantly.

Because moreover nan astir predominant flyers don’t alert each day, airlines entice customers to gain rewards by immoderate intends different than flying. If points are easy to earn, only requiring mini transactions, they entreaty to a broader group of consumers. The quest to gain points towards a recreation reward builds a affirmative marque relation for nan airline, moreover if consumers walk their money connected thing unrelated. In those cases, hose gross from points and miles comes from partners successful nan transaction, specified arsenic branded in installments cards, retailers, and different hose marque loyalty partnerships.

Making The Points And Miles Systems Valuable

How overmuch a constituent aliases mile is worthy varies from programme to programme and tin alteration arsenic airlines revalue their programs, adjusting for costs and demand. For airlines, 1 of nan challenges of designing and maintaining rewards programs is to guarantee that nan rewards support up pinch their precocious operating costs and debased margins. The concealed for airlines, arsenic pinch each companies, is to build nan perceived worth of their rewards while reducing their costs to guarantee a profit. Rewards must beryllium enticing and exclusive to beryllium perceived arsenic valuable.

The privileged premium tiers facet of hose rewards programs motivate much predominant flyers to usage nan hose exclusively. Airlines reward that exclusivity pinch dedicated services, privilege treatment, entree to luxury lounges, and premium seats.

Many predominant travelers are competitory successful nan miles and points crippled and deterioration their tiers arsenic a badge of honor. But if excessively galore group execute nan aforesaid status, nan worth of that position dwindles. Airlines make adjustments accordingly.

United Airlines Retains The Value Of Exclusivity

BRAZIL - 2022/11/07: In this photograph illustration, nan MileagePlus Rewards United Airlines logo is ... [+] displayed connected a smartphone screen. (Photo Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

United Airlines’ loyalty program, MileagePlus, classed 4th successful nan world successful 2022, pinch $4.6 cardinal successful gross and an mean of $31.64 per passenger. The hose enrolled much members during nan 3rd 4th of this year, mounting a caller record. The number of caller MileagePlus members has almost doubled compared to 5 years ago. United Airlines reported nan highest number of miles redeemed for grant recreation successful nan program's history during nan 3rd 4th of this year. And user spending crossed United Airlines-branded in installments cards successful nan U.S. enjoyed double-digit growth. But MileagePlus benefits from its exclusivity successful premium tiers and awards redemption.

“We’ve cautiously managed our premier organization successful caller years to support a robust and valuable group of benefits for each premier member,” said Andrew Nocella, United Airlines Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer, during nan 2023 third-quarter net call. “We very overmuch judge successful ne'er causing a business wherever everyone has a premier status, which results successful nary 1 receiving an capable level of premier benefits. Our United strategy to connection premier members entree to much premium seats than each of our competitors is enhancing nan worth of our predominant flyer loyalty program.”

Delta Air Lines Angers Program Members

Frequent Flyer Baggage Tag. Luggage Identity Label. (Photo by: myLoupe/Universal Images Group via ... [+] Getty Images)

Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Delta Air Lines besides profits from its SkyMiles loyalty program. In 2022, Delta classed 2nd successful nan world, aft American Airlines, pinch $5.5 cardinal successful loyalty programme revenue, astatine an mean of $32.10 per passenger. And nan hose expects to apical that fig this year.

“Total loyalty gross was up 17% complete anterior twelvemonth pinch continued spot successful our American Express AXP co-brand portfolio,” said Delta Air Lines President Glen Hauenstein, during this year’s Q3 net call. “Amex remuneration of $1.7 cardinal grew astir 20% complete anterior year. We expect full-year remuneration of adjacent to $7 cardinal and are focused connected reaching our semipermanent extremity of $10 billion. Diversified gross streams, including premium and loyalty person generated 55% of gross twelvemonth to date, reflecting Delta's differentiated positioning to nan industry.”

However, nan hose precocious issued and had to revise immoderate changes to its SkyMiles programme aft a realignment of rank tiers caused an uproar of nan benignant nan Senators are investigating.

Like United, Delta aimed to guarantee that nan inherent worth of nan astir charismatic perks of loyalty is not diluted. The hose has invested heavy to refresh its lounges, for example, and they are little delightful erstwhile overcrowded.

Still, moreover Delta’s CEO, Ed Bastian, acknowledged that they whitethorn person gone excessively far.

“We had excessively galore changes rolled retired astatine nan aforesaid time, and we needed to spell backmost and reassess nan planned rollout for nan caller qualification levels,” Bastian said during nan Q3 net call. “Most everyone besides agrees that thing has to beryllium done because everyone sees that nan premium number of customers that we proceed to build are successful excess of nan premium assets that we person to offer.” The airline, he said, was “figuring retired really to amended rationalize and make definite that nan work levels for our premium customers are wherever they request to be.”

Shortly after, Delta announced a revision of tiers to strike a balance betwixt nan fame of nan SkyMiles programme and nan benefits of privilege for premium tier members.

Loyalty programs are arsenic valuable to airlines arsenic they are to programme members. All airlines want to support that loyalty growing.

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