Unraveling the Frequent Flyer Programme: A Tale of Climate Injustice and Economic Inequality

by | 26 Feb 2024 | Webinar

We are in the era of frequent flyer programmes, where jet-setting has become a symbol of status and aspiration. What started as a marketing tactic that the top brass in American Airlines called “the best in the business” has now grown into a significant contributor to social inequality and climate destruction by the aviation industry. In a recent webinar discussion featuring experts in climate science, air transport and frequent flyer programmes, the detrimental effects of frequent flyer programmes were laid bare. Let’s delve into the insights shared by the speakers and explore the urgent need for reform.

The Magnitude of Aviation’s Carbon Footprint

Ali Warrington, a senior campaigner at climate charity Possible, highlighted the disproportionate contribution of aviation to global heating. Despite only a fraction of the world’s population ever boarding a plane, aviation’s carbon emissions surpass those of entire continents. The basic question raised by Stefan Gössling, a seasoned researcher in air transport and climate change, is whether the current level of flying is truly necessary. The resounding answer, backed by a 2019 research paper he co-authored, suggests that it’s not. The COVID-19 pandemic served as an inadvertent experiment, demonstrating that reduced air travel did not cripple the global economy.

False Promises of Technological Solutions

Kimberly Nicholas is a sustainability scientist, writer, speaker. She is the author of author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller Under the Sky We Make: How to be Human in a Warming World, and the climate advice newsletter We Can Fix It. Kimberly and Stefan both debunked the myth of technological salvation perpetuated by the aviation industry, which Stay Grounded and Transport and Environment have also reported on. While advancements may offer incremental improvements, they fail to offset the escalating demand for air travel. The crux of the matter lies in demand reduction—a fundamental shift in consumer behaviour, enforced by policies, rather than fantastical technological quick fixes. Possible’s recent research report developed with Chatham House on the role of the aviation industry in net zero underscores the urgency, projecting the need for a two-thirds reduction in demand by 2030 to align with carbon budget targets.

The Aspirational Facade of Flying

Flying has been marketed as an aspirational pursuit, fuelled by influencers and societal norms. However, as Stefan Gössling observes, affordability drives demand. Policies targeting the cost of flying can effectively reshape travel habits and mitigate environmental impact, especially if they are accompanied by investment in cheaper rail alternatives. The reality, as Stefan emphasises, is that the aviation industry operates on thin profit margins, often relying on subsidies to stay afloat.

Unveiling the Role of Elites

A staggering revelation shared by Kimberly Nicholas unveils the disproportionate responsibility borne by frequent flyers, with a fraction of the population accounting for the lion’s share of emissions. Ali Warrington echoes this sentiment, underscoring the glaring inequality in access to air travel. Frequent flyer programmes exacerbate this divide by rewarding excessive flying, perpetuating a cycle of environmental harm and exclusivity.

Because frequent fliers stand as 1% of the world’s population with 50% of the emissions, if they half their flights that will cut emissions from air transport by 25%. Right away.” (Stefan Gössling)

The Economic Fallout

Larry Edwards, a Stay Grounded Turtle who closely follows FFP developments as well as climate science, sheds light on the hidden costs of frequent flyer programmes, extending beyond environmental consequences and inequality of access. These programmes inflate prices across industries, with merchants shouldering transaction fees passed down from credit card companies, which they in turn pass on to consumers. In other words, the transaction cost of FFPs ripple through the economy, burdening those already struggling with a cost of living crisis.

The Profitable Illusion

Behind the facade of airline profitability lies a stark reality. Frequent flyer programmes, rather than flight revenues, serve as the lifeblood of many carriers. American Airlines’ business model epitomises this dependency, where credit card partnerships and loyalty schemes generate substantial profits. To quote the Chief Commercial Officer of American Airlines, “Basic Economy is not about a competitive product — it’s our entry-level product that gets customers in the door and signed up for AAdvantage”. In other words, selling people standard flight tickets is not profitable. What’s profitable is moving those customers through the pipeline to become frequent flyers who sign up for an American Airlines credit card.

“More than ever, our revenue growth is fueled by a growing number of AAdvantage customers who acquired our co-brand credit cards in record numbers in 2023… two-thirds of our revenue came from AAdvantage customers.” (Robert Isom, American Airlines CEO)

The Credit Card Competition Act, currently moving through the legislative pipeline in the US, poses a threat to this model, promising increased competition in the credit card industry. Larry explains this process in the webinar, referencing this piece of research which appears likely to be funded by the aviation industry. This can provide inspiration for movements in Europe and elsewhere to chip away at the FFP model indirectly through legislation.

“Is this really a loyalty program, or a bait and capture scheme? Dangle the enticement, and shape the habit; then, writ large across society, wait for it to become a norm. And keep the scheme pumping by giving the near-odious Basic seats away cheaply enough to draw in more fresh recruits — it’s a growth machine.” (Larry Edwards)

The campaign logic of frequent flyer programmes

Campaigning on frequent flyer programmes is a way to draw attention to the inequity of aviation and its impact, while working to weaken its destructive profit model. As Ali explains, it also creates a window to push for a frequent flyer levy which, in effect, turns the tables on the current model of incentivising flying by those who already fly the most. The FFL would instead tax frequent fliers at an ever-increasing rate, reflecting the societal costs of their actions. Check out Possible’s report on a frequent flyer levy.


Frequent flyer programmes epitomise the dual crises of climate injustice and economic inequality driven by the aviation industry. This status quo is untenable. Urgent action is needed to curtail excessive flying and dismantle inequitable reward systems that incentivise destructie behaviours while costing the rest of us. We need a sustainable and just mobility system.