Frequent Flyer Programs Should Be Abolished, Report Says

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Public Domain. Unsplash / Iwan Shimko

They incentivize air travel at a time when people should be flying less.

Frequent flyer rewards should be scrapped, according to a new report published by the Imperial College of London and commissioned by the UK's Committee on Climate Change. Reward programs act as an incentive for people to travel by air at a time when flying should be getting more expensive and inconvenient, due to it being such a high-carbon activity.

The problem is that people with frequent flyer status often book flights instead of taking less carbon-intensive modes of travel, either because it's cheaper due to accumulated points or it allows them to maintain their special status. Jasmine Andersson writes for iNews that some travellers even book flights for no other reason than to keep that status:

"One 33-year-old frequent flyer said last year that to keep his gold-card status he had flown to Auckland in New Zealand via Colombo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney and Melbourne, among others. 'I had no reason to go to Auckland – it served no purpose other than to keep my status.' He said he spends approximately £4,500 a year on flights, and admitted he wonders if he needs psychiatric help."

The report is aimed at the 15 percent of the UK's population that is responsible for taking 70 percent of flights. It also calls for an 'escalating air miles levy,' which is a tax on frequent flying. In other words, the more you fly, the more you pay. (There have also been suggestions to tax short flights, as these usually have greener transportation alternatives.) Neither the dissolution of frequent flyer rewards nor a frequent flyer tax would make flying less accessible or more expensive for those people who only fly occasionally, i.e. taking an annual holiday; it would just discourage people from flying when it's not necessary.

I think these are smart moves that could make a difference, if implemented broadly and effectively. Because an outright personal ban on flying is not realistic for many, I have called before for a reducetarian-type approach to flying, in which people choose their flights more wisely and weigh alternatives more seriously, and this kind of initiative would help that. "If more people flew less, we'd be further ahead than if a handful of people swore off flying altogether."

Critics are up in arms about the report's suggestion, claiming that frequent flyer rewards are "the great equalizer in travel," but the fact remains that "high impact shifts in consumer behaviours are needed for the UK to reach its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, rather than the small and easy changes suggested to UK households in the past" (via iNews) – and tackling elite flying habits is about as high impact as you can get without seriously affecting people's daily lives at home.

The Independent cites the report, saying the policy changes are "consistent with the scale of the climate challenge, build optimism and commitment, and give weight to new ambitious narratives that inspire wide public participation."