When the great book of marketing triumphs is written, one of the chapters will surely deal with the variety of frequent flier schemes that these days abound. As a way of getting customers to focus on issues other than the lowest price, they’re a masterstroke. It used to be that you could earn maximum miles on discounted fares, but that’s all been changed as airlines have wised up to the contingent liability. These days the miles earned are substantially reduced when you buy a cheap ticket.
Especially with the rise of budget airlines, I doubt that there’s any calculation of miles earned that justifies loyalty to one airline, especially on short-hop flights. However, the much-coveted gold status does confer a large number of benefits that make travel a more bearable experience (unless, of course, you’ve bought a business class ticket, in which case none of this applies to you). Access to lounges, preferential seating and boarding, and my personal favourite – additional baggage allowance – are a few of the benefits. I don’t think I ever travel without wine samples – usually a case – which can single-handedly wipe out an economy class baggage allowance. I would say I’m probably also safe from getting ‘bumped’ due to over-booking. (For the record, my favourite lounge is Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong, where I never fail to eat my way through the entire noodle bar menu.)
It was required of me earlier today to explain the concept of miles to Aedan, especially with respect to using miles to upgrade to business class. “It works like this”, I said to him, “your teacher rewards you by giving you stars for your star chart. Imagine if you could convert those stars into an extra day’s holiday, or even a special toy.” The juvenile analogy is perhaps not misplaced, given how emotional travellers can get about relatively trivial issues.
My tenure in wine retail yielded at least one case of air rage (of which I’m aware). This happened on a flight from Cape Town to London in 2000. I was in business class (having purchased a ticket with air miles), in a suitably cosseted state, sipping a delicious glass (or three) of Kanonkop Pinotage, and deciding which channel to watch on my personal video screen. In stormed a winemaker in a state of some pique at having to drink Oscar’s Easy Red in cattle class. It was not a pretty sight, and hardly a good time for me to suggest to the hostess to “give them cake.” The man’s eyes were crazed, his little remaining hair dishevelled. Not wanting to interrupt the in-flight entertainment for too long, I begged a bottle of the Kanonkop Pinotage (one of the Cape’s finest) to pacify the gent.
So, how did I come by the miles? In 1998, when I couldn’t get conventional funding for my wine shops, I began to get extremely creative in foraging for cash. On one day, Andrea and I applied for every single credit card we could. With interest rates heading for 25% it was cheaper to add the 2.5% merchant’s commission for the sake of 55 days free credit. There was the secondary benefit of collecting Voyager miles (which is what got me into business class). When the concept was introduced the banks were offering one mile for the expenditure of every R5.00. It seems hard to believe that they were that generous.
For travellers with automatically-replenishing gold credit cards none of this is relevant, but for the rest of us – scratching around to make the inhumane bearable – the slightest advantage that either gives us an edge, or that gives us the illusion of having one, can cause us to act somewhat less rationally than we would otherwise. Especially when it comes to choice of airlines.