For love of the game

It’s that time of the year again: the time when frequent flyers everywhere start looking at their mileage summaries for the year, checking their numbers against the officially-published lists of requirements for elite status, and everyone wonders what next year’s program is going to be like. It’s also the time of the year where airlines roll out the changes for the next year. Aeroplan recently announced it would be adding fuel surcharges to Star Alliance award flights, where previously it had only done so against Air Canada-operated flights. These surcharges could get ridiculous, to the point where the surcharges made it difficult to justify redeeming miles for the flight: when we went to Japan back in the spring, I was offered connecting flights KSEA-CYVR-CYYJ on Air Canada, and Aeroplan wanted $380 for surcharges and taxes for those flights. Thing is, I could buy the revenue tickets for $365 and take another 1,000 miles for the deal, so yeah, that’s what happened.

This change has meant that a lot of people are modifying their travel plans a bit — I’m certainly looking a lot harder at our travel plans for next year in an attempt to beat the surcharges on Thai, ANA, Asiana, and a few other carriers not called Lufthansa (where it is too late). Even among those who aren’t planning to travel, though, there’s a lot of anger. And there usually is a lot of anger around this time of year: status benefits change, upgrades are reduced, and it seems like everyone else has it just a bit better in a different airline’s program than you do in yours.

Over on FlyerTalk, a member posted a manifesto for those angry at this kind of stuff:

Every year, or several times per year, people seem to worry about switching programs, or where to go, or if to stay, and it all gets very intense.

This is an alternative set of ideas for those who get very anxious about airlines and the programs they offer.

  1. Most important of all: marketing is a powerful tool that airlines have used very effectively over many decades. While it is impossible to completely escape its effects, the most relaxing thing you can do is to realize that your airline-related hysteria is primarily caused by the aura that the airlines still manage to have – notwithstanding the fact there is nothing at all special about them.
  2. Never depend on an airline to do anything properly, such as get you anywhere when you need to be there, or get any of your stuff anywhere at all.
  3. Do you get so anxious about every industry you deal with? Grocery stores? Banks? If you did, I’m surprised you aren’t in the hospital. See #1.
  4. Airlines offer programs involving points, upgrades, and the like, entirely for their own benefit, without regard to what you might get out of it. They are not rewards for your loyalty in any way, shape, or form.
  5. It is the ultimate goal of all airlines to make you think you are receiving benefits when in fact you are not.
  6. The superiority of one airline’s program over another is always temporary.
  7. You are not important to the airline, no matter how much you think you might be.
  8. The following cannot all exist simultaneously, even for any subset of customers:
    • A generous upgrade scheme
    • A generous award flight availability scheme
    • A generous points earning structure
    • A quality product
  9. The best you can hope for with airline programs is a sort of arbitrage situation, in which your above average knowledge allows you to get an above average amount of benefits. The airline will always attempt to reduce your ability to benefit in this manner.
  10. The airline sets the rules. The airline can change the rules whenever it wants, without notice, and should always expect it to do so to its own benefit. Always consider your “assets” (points, upgrade credits) to be worthless, so that when they become worthless you will have lost nothing.
  11. Have no expectations and you will never be disappointed.

I find this surprisingly refreshing. I loves me my status as much as the next person with “AC*E” printed on their boarding pass, and I’m tickled pink I requalified much earlier this year than in the past (no 40-minute trip to Los Angeles or one-way home from Vancouver for me!), but I think zorn makes a lot of sense with zir list, and I’ll endeavor to keep it in the back of my mind when I inevitably start screaming once the Air Canada program for 2012 is announced.

zorn’s point 9, however, has a shocking amount of truth to it, and gets to the heart of what I think drives a lot of FFs: We love the game. We love the system. It reminds me of nothing so much as being a phone phreak — it’s not exactly the places the system takes us, though that matters a great deal, but rather the idea of possessing a body of knowledge about a fairly opaque world that most people don’t care about, and where the details of that world are derived through experimentation and community knowledge sharing. It isn’t about trying to defraud the airlines (or the phone company, for that matter) — it’s about trying to understand something, and I occasionally think my ultimate dream job would be in network or operations management for a major international airline.

I can’t think of any reason why otherwise sane people would spend hours combing through the fare databases looking for mistakes, why our idea of a good time is reading the entire contract of carriage, or why we can describe, in some detail, the route structure of an entire airline alliance. It’s the only way I can explain having an entire list of upgrade and mileage-earning fare buckets at the tip of my tongue, or why I know what the spot price of a ticket to Toronto is on any given day. Much in the same way that a phreak could talk your ear off about MF signalling or the differences between N2 and T-carrier, I can spend hours about the intricacies of clearing a waitlist or how to work the system to your benefit during IRROPs (and why you should always, but always, take a bump if one is offered). This is interesting stuff, but it’s the sort of thing no normal human really needs to know. I know it’s trite to say there are two kinds of people in the world — there always are, but this time it’s true: you either care about this kind of stuff, or you’re not. Chances are if you’re fascinated with the minutia of running an airline you’ve been similarly obsessed about other opaque systems in your life. If not, well, too bad.

As for why the airlines inspire this level of devotion, it’s not complicated. zorn talked about that too. It’s marketing. This is from Delta, about a half-dozen years back:

I loved this ad when it came out, because it captured something fundamental about the experience of travel that’s difficult to put into words, and it manages to illustrate the passion that good travel can inspire. My new hands-down favorite, though, and the one that made me cry like a small child when I saw it for the first time earlier today, is the contemporary British Airways advert:

I know zorn is right: the airlines are no different from any other business I deal with on a daily basis. But they are the vehicle through which many of our dreams about travel, adventure, change, and possibility (and here you’ll have to excuse the expression) find flight. Airline marketing works because they are selling a product that most of us would buy anyway, simply because of what the product represents. Beer advertising makes it look as though you’ll meet lots of attractive women if you drink their product; that doesn’t actually happen. But get on an airplane and you really do end up somewhere else, even if “somewhere else” happens to be Pittsburgh. That’s awfully powerful.

Patrick Smith says that he became a pilot because, as a child, what fascinated him were the route maps in the back of the in-flight magazines, and the possibilities they represented. I was like that, too. Heck, I still am. It is just marketing, a bit of captive advertising, to let you know what the airline could do, if you gave it enough of your time and money, and with that potential comes a thousands dreams of far-away cities, strange lands, and new experiences. You either get this or you don’t, and you can be rational about your engagement with an airline or you can’t.

I’m trying to be rational about my relationship with Air Canada and the Star Alliance. But I’m not sure that it’s possible. Like I said, there are two kinds of people.