Greener airline loyalty plans

I just returned from NYC, where I spent the week enjoying a vibrant city and a couple days of the GEL conference. The conference was great, a ton of fun and great experience overall though I have to admit there wasn't a lot of stuff I could take away and use to build web projects even though I came away inspired. One of the many informative talks was given by Graham Hill of Treehugger and he talked about cutting carbon for Americans by making a few small changes. One of them was eating less meat ("weekday vegetarian") and the other was flying less often (non-stop, stay for at least a week, group trips into one).

I got to thinking about how seldom I fly these days, on the order of maybe 3-4 flights a year, where a few years ago I averaged about once a month or more. Ever since I cut back on flights, my award travel from various airline loyalty programs has basically dried up. Some stored miles have expired to zero, while the one airline I use most often seems to add miles so slowly that I'll be lucky to take one free trip after six years of saving miles up.

While listening to Graham Hill, I thought about all the ways that frequent flyer miles are the exact opposite of the advice he was giving. They encourage regular travel by plane. They encourage many short flights (Graham mentioned going non-stop over multi-stop since take-offs create the most pollution). They encourage long trips to rack up the miles. I understand why they do all these things — they want to fill seats and sell tickets, but eventually all this plane travel is going to bite us in the ass and the current CO2 levels just might be one result.

I'd love to see an airline (someone ballsy like Virgin or JetBlue) take the lead and reward travellers that stick with the same airline, but consciously reduce their short flights, reduce their total miles, and reduce their frequency. They wouldn't even need to offer free flights or upgrades for loyalty — maybe plant a tree in my honor every time I fly only 4 times or less a year.

It'd be nice to see something other than rewarding people for frequently using the one of the most polluted forms of travel.

One Comment

  • I’m not sure how a reward system can work for not producing emissions (which is the bottom line with air travel or house extensions or consumption of anything that isn’t self-sustaining) unless it’s linked to an overall personal carbon economy. It’s one thing to only fly a couple of times of year, for instance, but if you drive a tank and import your house bricks from Greenland and guzzle a ton of electricity in your home or whatever, then your carbon debt could still be relatively very high. Why reward someone fiddling at the margins?
    I remember seeing an interview – maybe 2 years ago – with the former UK Environment Minister (now Foreign Secretary) who said one of the novel schemes that crossed his desk was the idea of having a carbon credit card that could potentially be linked to taxation. You spend your carbon lots with the purchase of a wheelbarrow or filling up your car etc etc: any purchase accounts for the emission production from each item. If you reach a certain level, your taxation % goes up: that sort of thing. Real incentive! Obviously the mathematical basis for such a scheme (which I guess we’re all starting to see in one form or another with the industry carbon trading schemes being floated around the world economies at present) would be fiercely complex so maybe it isn’t particularly feasible in the short term (and maybe the political ‘big brother’ difficulties in getting a scheme in place would be insurmountable anyway). But unless there is some sort of system that accounts for an individual’s total carbon consumption, then I think a lot of people will take false comfort, perhaps, in making what are, in the big scheme, marginal adjustments to their lifestyle without having a proper appreciation of their overall carbon impact. Maybe if you’ve only spent 4/10 of your yearly carbon credit at the halfway point in the year then the plane travel could be cheaper perhaps?? But I’d be a bit wary of a gimmick reward system at the customer end for airlines: I’d rather they have to fund forest planting or pay higher taxation proportional to their carbon consumption.

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