If you dabble in the world of points and miles, chances are you’re a member of one or more airline loyalty programs. But have you ever wondered why loyalty programs started in the first place? I did. Here’s what I found out.
The very first frequent flyer program was created in the early 1970s. Devised by a marketing company for United, it gave awards to its passengers in the form of plaques and awards.
Frequent flyer programs that were closer to how we know them today began not long after U.S. airline deregulation in 1978. That’s when airlines had to market themselves more, and sometimes differently, so they could appear to be “the best,” because there was more competition for passengers’ money. So in the first decade or so after deregulation, we saw the development of:
1979: Texas International Airlines (ETA: NOT Texas Instruments. I’m a dope. Thanks for the heads up, David M.!) created the first frequent flyer program that used mileage tracking to “reward” its passengers. The program was dismantled within a year and TIA was eventually acquired by Continental Airlines, which, of course, eventually merged with United.
1980: Western Airlines created a Travel Bank – it eventually became part of Delta’s program when they had a merger in 1987
1981 was the year of the frequent flyer explosion. American Airlines’ AAdvantage program launched; its basis was to give special fares to frequent customers, although it never really got off the ground (do you see what I did there?) and eventually morphed into a more typical “miles flown” program. United’s Mileage Plus, Delta’s oh-so-creatively named “Delta Air Lines Frequent flyer Program” (later changed to SkyMiles), Continental’s & Eastern’s (combined) OnePass, and Air Canada’s Altitude programs also all launched that year. Virtually all of these programs were originally based on mileage flown, and nothing more.
1982: British Airways introduced their Executive Club
1985: Diners Club introduced the first credit card that was linked to an airline loyalty program – boy, did they open up a can of worms! 😉
1987: Southwest’s The Company Club loyalty program begins – their points were awarded based on number of trips, not how far you had flown.
Nearly all of the frequent flyer mile programs’ scope and, let’s face it, rules of earning, and resulting ability to be used, have morphed over the years (i.e., right now Alaska is the only U.S. airline that still awards miles based on miles flown, not price paid), but their main reason for being remains the same – they’re a marketing technique for you to (hopefully) be more loyal to their respective brands.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary