(Roughly) Daily

“Success is in making money, not in the size of the airline”*…

Airlines make more money from mileage programs than from flying planes—and it shows. Ganesh Sitaraman explains…

… From the late 1930s through the ’70s, the federal government regulated airlines as a public utility. The Civil Aeronautics Board decided which airlines could fly what routes and how much they could charge. It aimed to set prices that were fair for travelers and that would provide airlines with a modest profit. Then, in 1978, Congress passed a sweeping law deregulating the airline industry and ultimately abolishing the CAB. Unleashed from regulation, airlines devised new tactics to capture the market. American Airlines was one of the most aggressive. In the lead-up to the deregulation bills, it created discount “super saver” fares to sell off the final few remaining seats on planes. That meant cheap prices for last-minute travelers and more revenue for American, because the planes were going to take off whether or not the seat was filled. But these fares upset business travelers, who tended to buy tickets further in advance for higher prices. So in 1981, American developed AAdvantage, its frequent-flier program, to give them additional benefits. Other airlines followed suit.

In the early years, these programs were simple, like the punch card at a café where your 11th coffee is free. But three big changes transformed them into the systems we know today. First, in 1987, American partnered with Citibank to offer a branded credit card that offered points redeemable for flights on the airline. Second, in the ’90s, the airlines proliferated the number of fare classes, charging differential prices for tickets. With more complicated fare structures came the third change: Virgin America realized that the amount people spend on a flight, based on the fare class, is more important to their bottom line than the number of miles flown. So, in 2007, it introduced a loyalty program rewarding money spent rather than mileage accrued.

These three shifts fundamentally transformed the airline industry. They turned frequent-flier systems into the sprawling points systems they are today. And they turned airlines into something more like financial institutions that happen to fly planes on the side.

Here’s how the system works now: Airlines create points out of nothing and sell them for real money to banks with co-branded credit cards. The banks award points to cardholders for spending, and both the banks and credit-card companies make money off the swipe fees from the use of the card. Cardholders can redeem points for flights, as well as other goods and services sold through the airlines’ proprietary e-commerce portals.

For the airlines, this is a great deal. They incur no costs from points until they are redeemed—or ever, if the points are forgotten. This setup has made loyalty programs highly lucrative. Consumers now charge nearly 1 percent of U.S. GDP to Delta’s American Express credit cards alone. A 2020 analysis by the Financial Times found that Wall Street lenders valued the major airlines’ mileage programs more highly than the airlines themselves. United’s MileagePlus program, for example, was valued at $22 billion, while the company’s market cap at the time was only $10.6 billion.

Is this a good deal for the American consumer? That’s a trickier question. Paying for a flight or a hotel room with points may feel like a free bonus, but because credit-card-swipe fees increase prices across the economy—Visa or Mastercard takes a cut of every sale—redeeming points is more like getting a little kickback. Certainly the system is bad for Americans who don’t have points-earning cards. They pay higher prices on ordinary goods and services but don’t get the points, effectively subsidizing the perks of card users, who tend to be wealthier already.

The strange evolution of airlines into quasi-banks reflects how badly deregulation has gone. Regulation carefully set the terms under which airlines could do business. It was designed to ensure that they remained a stable business and a reliable mode of transportation. Deregulation, in turn, allowed the airlines to pursue profits in whatever way they could—including getting into the financial sector.

The proponents of deregulation made a few big promises. The cost of flying would go down once airlines were free to compete on price. The industry would get less monopolistic as hundreds of new players entered the market, and it would be stable even without the government guaranteeing profitable rates. Small cities wouldn’t lose service. In the deregulators’ minds, airlines were like any other business. If they were allowed to compete freely, the magic of the market would make everything better. Whatever was good for the airlines’ bottom line would be good for consumers.

They were wrong. As I explain in my forthcoming book, most of their predictions didn’t come true, because air travel isn’t a normal business. There are barriers to entry, such as the fixed supply of airport runways and gates. (And, for that matter, mileage programs, designed to keep customers from ditching an established airline for a rival.) There are network effects and economies of scale. There are high capital costs. (Airplanes aren’t cheap.) The idea that anyone could successfully start an airline and outcompete the big incumbents never made much sense.

After a relatively short period of fierce competition, the deregulated era quickly turned to consolidation and cost-cutting, as dozens of airlines either went bankrupt or were acquired. Service keeps getting worse, because the airlines, facing little competition, have nothing to fear from antagonizing passengers with cramped legroom, cancellations, and ever-multiplying fees for baggage and snacks. Worse still, without mandated service, cities and regions across the country have lost commercial air service, with serious consequences for their economies. And when a crisis like 9/11 or the coronavirus pandemic comes along, the airlines—which prefer to direct their profits to stock buybacks rather than rainy-day funds—need massive financial relief from the federal government.

Deregulation even failed to deliver the one thing it is sometimes credited with: lowering prices. Airfare did get cheaper in the years after the 1978 deregulation law. But the cost of flying had already been falling before deregulation, and it kept falling after at about the same rate.

The old system of airline regulation wasn’t perfect. Barred from competing directly on price, the airlines got into an amenities arms race that notoriously included in-flight piano bars. But the cure was worse than the disease. The industry went from being a regulated oligopoly, which had real problems, to an unregulated oligopoly, which we are now seeing is much worse…

Painful reading: “Airlines Are Just Banks Now” (gift article) from @GaneshSitaraman in @TheAtlantic.

* Gordon Bethune (Long-time chair of Continental Airlines)


As we pray for an aisle seat, we might console ourselves that at least we’re not boarding the S.S. Minnow; on this date in 1964 Gilligan’s Island premiered on CBS. Seven castaways– five paying passengers who’d booked a “three hour tour” from Honolulu, and their two-person crew– spent the next three seasons marooned on an uncharted island.