Imagine taking a flight you don’t want or need, to stretch your legs in the destination airport before heading straight back.
Jerry (a pseudonym), who works in software sales, estimates that these kinds of flights make up about 15% of all his flights. Some Saturdays, he’ll take an immediate round trip from L.A. to the other end of the country. To make up for all that sitting, he’ll walk a bit in the airport before boarding the return flight.
For him, halving his weekends is well worth it, given the perks he gets from higher airline status: upgrades, lounge access, and partner privileges.
For years, frequent flyers like Jerry have been taking mileage runs – also sometimes referred to as segment runs or tier point runs – solely to maximize the airline points or reward status they accrue. On message boards and social media, they trade nerdily specific details of flight routes, airline promotions, and reward tiers, calculating the exact itineraries that will bring them to a certain status or keep them there.
For mileage runners, this can be a game, a competition, a hobby, an obsession, and possibly even a source of community with other extreme flyers. It’s not exactly secret.
Yet previous news coverage has tended to paint this as an eccentric but essentially harmless practice, or even offer suggestions to readers on optimizing such travel. Rarely have the climate consequences been mentioned.
These consequences are more starkly obvious now than ever before. A number of climate-related records have been broken in 2023, including the hottest July ever and the lowest level of sea ice in Antarctica. Wildfires and heatwaves have seared the planet.
In 2022, aviation was responsible for 2% of CO2 emissions from energy use. This may seem low, but the per-passenger emissions are very high and very unequal, considering that only a small minority of people actually do much flying.
In 2018, 11% of the world’s population flew, while 4% flew internationally. Just 1% of the most frequent flyers account for over half of the emissions from commercial aviation. It may seem from popular culture and social media in rich countries that everyone is flying, all of the time. But this “hyper-aeromobility,” as one scholarly mouthful puts it, essentially comes down to just the 1%.
It’s the outsize impact of these frequent flyers that climate campaigners and experts, including the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, have been targeting with calls for a frequent flyer levy as well as restrictions on frequent flyer programs. Under such proposals, the vast majority of people, and even most flyers, would be unaffected.
In addition to these two measures, the UK climate nonprofit Possible has urged the end of private jet sales and advertising for flights. Its flagship aviation campaign is for a frequent flyer levy, a progressive tax that kicks in for the second flight a person takes in a given year, and ratchets up as flights increase. There is strong public support in the UK for this type of fee.
Alethea Warrington, Possible’s senior aviation campaigner, sees this as a pragmatic and fair policy. “You can get quite a lot of demand reduction just by targeting frequent flights,” she explains. “You don’t have to tell people they can’t take their annual family holiday. You don’t have to tell people that they can’t travel occasionally overseas to their family.”
Tier point runs represent the opposite: unchecked and gratuitous flying. Warrington comments, “From a climate perspective, this is an absolutely huge chunk of emissions for a very, very small number of people and it’s not producing any benefit. You know, people are literally flying around just to keep access to their lounge or whatever. It’s just incredibly wasteful.”
A recent report published by Possible, titled Pointless: The climate impact of frequent flyer status, notes that overall, frequent flyer programs encourage more carbon emissions by rewarding flyers disproportionately more for long, complex flights. These are the types of flights that some tier point runners go after specifically because they fall into different distance bands, offering more rewards. One itinerary recommended in a frequent flyer forum is the exhausting-sounding trip of Malaga–Helsinki–London–New York–Los Angeles–San Francisco.
One commenter reports taking seven there-and-back mileage trips in a single week, at a cost of $1,500 and four pounds gained, in order to obtain 75,000 points.
For his part, Jerry isn’t particularly concerned about the climate impacts, though he used to buy carbon offsets for the mileage runs. He argues, “The planes will fly with or without me, full or not. The added fuel burn of me as a passenger is low in the overall picture of the flight at large.”
This is a common climate myth. Airlines are responsive to customer demand, so choosing to fly encourages more flights.
It’s seductive to disavow any kind of behavior change because most air travelers don’t consider themselves responsible for the emissions associated with that flying. A certain amount of cognitive dissonance is at work, because it can be hard for frequent flyers to reconcile the environmentally destructive nature of an activity that brings them so much satisfaction and status. One way to ease the tension is to cling to myths about flying.
Status, in the form of both tangible rewards and the intangible cachet people get from being elite jet-setters, will be hard to give up. But for Warrington, one striking aspect about attaining this lifestyle is how unpleasant it can seem.
“It does feel like an extraordinarily joyless experience,” she muses. When communities of tier runners trade stories of navigating through airports, sitting on planes, and worrying about the health effects, “it’s just interesting how little they seem to enjoy it.”
People do clearly enjoy the perks that make flying more bearable. Vikas (a pseudonym), mentions specific benefits like the “greater likelihood of upgrade to first class which make travel more convenient.” However, he acknowledges that when it comes to his frequent flyer status, “part of it is also just in my head.” He feels compelled to hit a goal.
Vikas, who worked for a tech firm before being laid off a few months ago, flies roughly 40,000 miles a year. He took a round-trip flight between Everett, Washington and San Francisco just to quality for a higher reward status, where he says he earns four times as many points for the same mileage.
However, he views transatlantic mileage runs during sales promotions, which he’s observed other frequent flyers doing, as opportunistic and wasteful.
Possible has an online tool that people can use to send a message to British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, asking them to end their frequent flyer programs. For now airlines appear unlikely to cut back on loyalty programs, which can be the single most profitable part of their operations. Beyond the money paid for flights themselves, the points collected by loyal customers are valuable currency, which airlines sell to banks.
Virgin Atlantic has acknowledged the importance of its loyalty program, saying in a statement that customer service “is the main reason our customers choose to fly Virgin Atlantic. Flying Club is our loyalty programme designed to reward those who fly with us when they travel, rather than rewarding based on their flying frequency.” According to a spokesperson, most of these points are “earned on the ground through our credit cards. When customers do use their points to fly with Virgin Atlantic, they are doing so on one of the most fuel-efficient fleets across the Atlantic and on an airline leading on decarbonising aviation.”
British Airways has expressed no desire to move away from its loyalty scheme. A statement from the airline reads in part, “We recognise our customers’ loyalty by offering tangible benefits as part of our Executive Club programme. We acknowledge the need to balance this with our environmental commitments.”
Like the UK government’s derided-by-environmentalists “Jet Zero” plan, those corporate environmental commitments focus on technological solutions – like sustainable aviation fuels and hydrogen-powered planes – that won’t mature quickly enough or with enough capacity to substantially reduce flight emissions. Energy-efficiency measures in commercial flying haven’t been sufficient to compensate for increased demand.
Finnair will change its loyalty program in 2024, switching from a system based on the number of flights to a point-based system that rewards total spending, like British Airways. A Finnair statement alludes to the role of reduced demand without actually committing to it: “we must be able to reduce the CO2 footprint of flying. Involving customers in this work is a part of the toolkit we need to use – this includes e.g. encouraging customers to combine flying with other modes of transportation and encouraging customers to pack light when they travel.”
What these statements sidestep is the fact that encouraging flying, let alone rewarding excessive flying, is not compatible with the climate reality. For a start, airlines could recognize this by taking a hard look at their frequent flyer programs.