In one video, the YouTube superstar Casey Neistat gets upgraded to a $21,000 first-class private cabin on Emirates. “This is caviar,” he says, holding up a plate he ordered off the complimentary, any-time-you-want-it first-class menu. “If you don’t know, caviar is fish eggs.” From an environmental perspective, it’s more or less like taking a Hummer along a high-speed rail route. The video has over 71 million views.
Mr. Neistat did not respond to multiple messages requesting comment.
Encouraging flying is the message
Sophia Mendelsohn, JetBlue’s head of sustainability, said the focus should not be on the reasons people fly. “Mileage-run flights aside, most people are on an airline because they need to be,” she said. “The climate doesn’t care if you flew on a loyalty program or not. The incremental increase in flying is dwarfed by the industry’s growth across the globe.” The focus instead should be on reducing airlines’ per-passenger footprint, she said, as JetBlue’s initiatives aim to do.
Furthermore, airline representatives and loyalty experts all note that fewer and fewer miles are being spent on air travel, as the cost in miles of purchasing a flight has gone up consistently in recent years, and airlines are increasingly providing nonflight options for spending your miles on things like gift cards or iPhones.
That’s all good news, according to Dr. Carmichael, the author of the British report, but it misses the broader point. Regardless of how small the measurable, direct impact of additional flights caused by loyalty programs, their indirect cost is high. He said they reward people for flying, the worst possible single action you can take for climate change. “To get anywhere near the pollution of a flight, you’d have to continuously be eating hamburgers across the Atlantic,” he said. (You’d actually have to eat hundreds.)
Anti-frequent flier programs
Dr. Carmichael’s report actually has a potentially more significant recommendation than restructuring loyalty programs: an “Air Miles Levy,” or flight tax based on how much an individual has flown in the last, say, three years. It is, in essence, the opposite of a frequent-flier program: the more you fly, the higher the penalty. He believes the measure would have strong public support, as the taxes would fall almost entirely on a small percentage of people. “Families would not be penalized for an annual holiday in the sun,” the report says.
One rare area of agreement is that frequent flier programs can be tweaked to promote environmentally conscious behavior. “I think it’s crucial we address this climate crisis,” said Iain Pringle, an expert with New World Loyalty, a consultancy. “But I think that loyalty programs are being seen as a tool for bad when actually I think it could be a tool for good, and it’s in everyone’s interest to have them be a tool for good.”
What that might look like could vary — Ms. Mendelsohn notes that members of JetBlue’s program can spend TrueBlue points on carbon offsets when they fly, a minor step. Dr. Carmichael would like airlines to prohibit customers from using their rewards points on flying and instead restrict them to low-carbon goods and services like e-bikes and gym memberships.
Seth Kugel is a travel writer and the author of “Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious,” now out in paperback.
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