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.