virus: Meme Update #28: Frequent Flyer Programs

Richard Brodie (
Wed, 26 May 1999 09:39:48 +0200

In this issue:

	Frequent Flyer Programs
	The Skeptic
	Book of the Week: Godel, Escher, Bach

Frequent Flyer Programs

If you want to see an example of a designer virus that was created for a simple purpose and got WAY out of control, take a look at frequent flyer programs. It all started 20 years ago.

If you were going to fly in the US 20 years ago, there were lots of factors you might take into consideration when deciding which airline to fly, but basically it was all under the control of a government agency, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). Airlines had a nice deal back then: they were pretty much guaranteed profitability. If you wanted to fly from Seattle to New York, you just picked an airline that flew that route, made a reservation, and got on the plane. Prices were largely determined by the CAB, and generally made some sort of sense based on the distance involved.

Then came the airline deregulation of the late 70s. The CAB was eliminated, and where airlines could fly (and what they could charge) was more or less up to them. With deregulation, not only could competitors start eating into the most profitable routes, but now just about anybody could start an airline! Something had to be done to ensure that airlines kept their profitable business customers and gave them a reason to fly one airline over another.

What happened at American Airlines in 1981 is a legend in the information technology industry. The CEO of American Airlines, Bob Crandall, was talking to the guy who headed up the Information Technology department, Max Hopper. It was a typical lunchroom conversation. "How do we get people to fly on us given that we no longer have this built-in profitability?" Hopper had been thinking about a way. The idea was that if you flew a certain number of flights on AA, you'd get a free flight. Because this was designed to give them an advantage, they called it AAdvantage. Now no great technology was needed to perform this feat. If you remember back in those days, it was all done with little pieces of paper that you turned in with your ticket.

Needless to say, AAdvantage was a huge success. Everybody was talking about it. So United, in about six weeks, responded with Mileage Plus. It was a similar plan, but with a variation based on the length of the trip: if you flew a certain number of miles, you got a free ticket. By 1983, it had started to steamroll. The award schedule went on for pages. They really didn't know what they were doing. They were in a hurry and didn't put a lot of thought into it. But accidentally, they put in a lot of good memes.

First of all, they set up the idea of a CHALLENGE. People -- especially the type of people who fly a lot, high-level businessmen -- love a challenge.
"Hey, I've flown 100,000 miles." "I've flown 200,000!" Just mailing people
the statistics set up the framework for a competition. But that was only the beginning. The thing that really took off was the idea that for cashing a certain amount of miles -- 10,000 in the beginning -- you could upgrade to first class. I don't think they really thought that upgrades would be such a big draw, but they started to appeal to the idea of ELITENESS. Coach became more and more of a cattle car and upgrades gave people a way of getting OUT of coach.

I don't know who came up with it first, but the idea of LEVELS in frequent-flyer programs really appeals to people who have grown up in the Boy Scouts, the Army, or corporate ladders. What do you get when you climb the ladder? It doesn't really matter. United's 100K-mile level (they call it
"1K" for unknown reasons) hardly gives you any benefits over their 50K
level, but want it we do (even me!) As we know from Virus of the Mind, people love to climb in a status hierarchy. Napoleon said, "A man will gladly give his life for a shred of cloth and a scrap of metal." How surprised should we be, then, to find we're willing to connect in Denver in December for the prospect of a gold-colored plastic card and the lofty title of "Premier Executive," "Platinum Medallion" or "Chairman's Preferred"? It's the modern equivalent of the aristocracy!

As the virus mutated out of control, it became a much bigger part of airline operations than anyone had ever imagined. One thing the airlines weren't expecting is accruing a whole lot of liability in the form of unredeemed miles on people's accounts. Enter expiring miles. They pissed off a lot of their most loyal customers, and now we're back to non-expiring miles, especially for the best customers. And you know what? A lot of those people are never going to redeem their miles. They're just in it for the memes.

The people who invented it, at American, now wish it would all go away. Flights to Hawaii are a third full of unpaying customers. Millions are spent on collateral material. But they are now a slave to the virus they created. If American stopped offering AAdvantage tomorrow, a million of their best customers would flee to competitors in a heartbeat. Even Southwest has to have it! Now when best friends travel together, they argue over which airline to fly! And through these programs the airlines have also created a feeling of entitlement. As a Gold member, I like to be treated like gold. There's nowhere to go but down. In the beginning it was American AAdvantage. Now it's BreAAk Even.

I have been a member of United Airlines Mileage Plus for 17 years. I correspond with other frequent fliers on the FlyerTalk bulletin board and listen to stories of the lengths people go to feed their mileage addiction. (One bulletin board contributor even goes by the handle "Mileage Addict.") It is not at all uncommon for people to make extra connections, fly from Seattle to London via Washington, D.C., or even take an around-the-world trip in order to retain their status at the top of the elite ladder. In most of the programs, it takes 100,000 actual flight miles per calendar year to achieve top status. But when you get there, are the rewards commensurate with the effort expended and loyalty shown? Or is there only fools gold at the end of the rainbow?

A little of both. United, the world's biggest airline, has a few perks reserved for their 100K flyers: special service desks in some airports to handle canceled flights and missed connections; waiver of that annoying $75 change fee in some cases for domestic flights; and the most important benefit, first priority on upgrades from the ever-more-sardine-can-like coach cabin into the tolerable front of the plane. But, really, it's nothing that money can't buy, and you have to begin to wonder how much of a chunk of your life you want to devote to bending over backwards to achieve the highest levels of these programs. Would you fly 8 hours out of your way for $200? Would you do it for 10,000 frequent flyer miles? What is your time worth to you?

The FF programs are one of a class of cultural institutions that have evolved to give us the illusion of power, status, and security. These are experiences we all crave to one degree or another, because in evolutionary history craving these things led to an improved chance of survival and reproduction. There is nothing wrong with enjoying these feelings. What is productive, though, is to ask yourself if this is the most valuable way to enjoy those feelings. In other words, can you imagine putting the time, money and energy into some other endeavor that not only gives you a sense of power, status, and security, but also puts you on the path to creating something of lasting value?

Frequent flyer links:
The WebFlyer from Inside Flyer Magazine: FlyerTalk Bulletin Board: The Airline Mileage Workshop:

The Skeptic

With the publication of the first book on memetics from an academic press, the field has attracted the notice of people who until now could afford to dismiss the theory as unworthy of their attention. Now it is beginning to get the critical attention it deserves. Skepticism is an important part of the scientific method. It serves to keep theorists honest and searching for experimental data to prove out their theories.

The cornerstone of modern skepticism is the Skeptics Society, which publishes an excellent free newsletter. I highly recommend that all Meme Update subscribers also subscribe to the Skeptic Hotline by sending right now.

Book of the Week
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter

If you haven't read what some people consider the greatest book ever written, take the opportunity to buy your very own copy of the 20th anniversary edition of this Pulitzer-prize-winning classic of art, science and philosophy. It's difficult to imagine anyone reading this masterpiece and not becoming entranced by the beauty of science, the science of beauty, the Zen of illogic, the logic of Zen, and the mystical threads that weave together the life of even the most rational of skeptics. This is one of my favorite books of all time. To quote futurist and boy genius Eliezer Yudkowsky in his review of GEB: "It is a terrible thing to contemplate that 150,000 people die every day without having read this book. Don't let it happen to you."

To order with your Memetics Bookstore discount, click on right now.

All the best memes,


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