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From Mileage to Revenue: The Ever-Changing World of Frequent Flyer Programs

The Early Years of Frequent Flyer Programs (1979-1986)

Flying has become a common mode of transportation for many people, whether it’s for business or pleasure. And as air travel grew in popularity, airlines began to see the potential for loyalty programs.

These programs, known as frequent flyer programs, were designed to reward customers for their loyalty and encourage them to continue flying with a specific airline. In this article, we’ll explore the early years of frequent flyer programs and how they evolved over time.

Origins of Frequent Flyer Programs

The concept of frequent flyer programs can be traced back to the late 1970s when Texas International Airlines introduced the very first program called Travel Bank. This program allowed passengers to accumulate air miles based on the distance they traveled.

Customers could then redeem these miles for free or discounted flights. The success of Travel Bank caught the attention of other airlines, leading to the development of similar programs.

In 1981, American Airlines introduced the AAdvantage program, often considered the first modern frequent flyer program. It revolutionized the industry by offering not just free flights but also a range of other rewards, such as upgrades, priority seating, and access to airport lounges.

The AAdvantage program was an instant hit, quickly attracting a large number of loyal customers. Not to be outdone, United Airlines launched its own mileage program, called Mileage Plus, in 1981.

This program offered many of the same benefits as the AAdvantage program, including free flights and exclusive privileges. United Airlines also introduced the concept of elite status, which rewarded passengers who flew a certain number of miles or segments with additional perks.

Establishment of Major U.S. Airlines’ Mileage Programs

As frequent flyer programs gained popularity, other major U.S. airlines followed suit. Delta Air Lines introduced its SkyMiles program in 1981, while Alaska Airlines launched its Mileage Plan in 1982.

Air Canada also joined the trend with its OnePass program in 1984. These programs worked in a similar way, allowing passengers to earn miles for each flight and redeem them for rewards.

Additionally, airlines formed partnerships with hotels, car rental companies, and other businesses, allowing members to earn miles through their everyday activities. This strategy helped airlines attract more customers and cement their place in the loyalty program landscape.

Credit Card Partnerships and Cobranded Cards (1987-present)

In 1987, the landscape of frequent flyer programs changed once again with the introduction of airline credit cards. These credit cards, offered in partnership with major airlines, allowed cardholders to earn miles for every dollar spent on the card.

This was a game-changer, as it allowed people to accumulate miles faster and with greater ease. Companies like Continental Airlines (now merged with United) introduced the TravelBank Gold MasterCard, which allowed cardholders to earn miles with every purchase.

American Airlines partnered with Citi to offer a cobranded card, while United Airlines introduced the Mileage Plus First Card. These credit cards not only encouraged loyalty to the airlines but also provided additional benefits and bonuses for cardholders.

Around the same time, Diners Club introduced a card that allowed members to earn transferable points. These points could be redeemed for miles with multiple airlines, giving cardholders more flexibility and choice in how they used their rewards.

This marked the beginning of the growth of proprietary points programs and major transferable points programs.

Growth of Proprietary Points Programs and Major Transferable Points Programs

In recent years, credit card companies have been offering proprietary points programs that allow cardholders to earn points on their purchases. American Express launched its Membership Rewards program, which allows cardholders to earn points that can be redeemed for flights, hotel stays, and other travel-related expenses.

Similarly, Chase introduced its Ultimate Rewards program, while Capital One launched its miles program, and Citi established the ThankYou Rewards program. These programs have become increasingly popular, as they offer cardholders a wide range of redemption options beyond just airline miles.

Points can often be transferred to airline partners, hotel partners, or used for statement credits or travel expenses directly through the credit card portal. This flexibility makes proprietary points programs an attractive option for frequent travelers.


Frequent flyer programs have come a long way since their inception in the late 1970s. What started as a simple mileage program has evolved into a complex system of rewards and partnerships that offer travelers a variety of benefits and options.

Whether it’s earning miles through credit card purchases or taking advantage of partnerships with hotels and other businesses, frequent flyer programs continue to play a significant role in the travel industry. So next time you book a flight, remember to enroll in the airline’s frequent flyer program and start earning those valuable miles.

Happy traveling!

Airline Alliances (1997-present)

In the world of frequent flyer programs, airline alliances have become a significant development in recent decades. These alliances bring together multiple airlines under one umbrella, allowing them to partner and collaborate on various aspects of the travel experience.

In this section, we will explore the formation of airline alliances and the benefits they provide for mileage programs.

Formation of Airline Alliances

The late 1990s marked a significant shift in the airline industry, as airlines began to recognize the advantages of partnering with each other. In 1997, Star Alliance became the first major airline alliance to form.

This alliance brought together five airlines, including United Airlines, Lufthansa, Air Canada, Thai Airways, and Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS). The goal of this alliance was to create a seamless travel experience for passengers, offering them a wider range of destinations, shared lounges, and reciprocal benefits.

Following the success of Star Alliance, other major airline alliances began to emerge. Oneworld, established in 1999, brought together airlines like American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, and Qantas.

SkyTeam, founded in 2000, included airlines such as Delta Air Lines, Air France, KLM, and Korean Air. These alliances provided passengers with increased connectivity, more flight options, and the ability to earn and redeem miles across multiple airlines within the same alliance.

Benefits of Airline Alliances for Mileage Programs

For frequent flyers, airline alliances have opened up a world of opportunities when it comes to earning and redeeming miles. By partnering with other airlines, loyalty program members can earn miles on flights operated by any airline within the same alliance.

This means that even if you fly with a different airline than your usual carrier, you can still earn miles and contribute to your loyalty program balance. Airline alliances also provide access to a greater number of destinations.

Through codeshare agreements, airlines within an alliance can market and sell flights operated by partner airlines under their own flight numbers. This allows passengers to book and travel seamlessly on multiple airlines, even if they are not direct partners.

For example, if you are a member of the Oneworld alliance and want to fly from New York to Tokyo, you can book a flight with American Airlines and connect onto a Japan Airlines flight, earning miles for the entire journey. Another benefit of airline alliances is the ability to enjoy reciprocal benefits across loyalty programs.

Elite status members of one airline within an alliance often receive similar perks when flying with partner airlines. This can include access to premium lounges, priority boarding, and extra baggage allowance.

These benefits enhance the overall travel experience and incentivize customers to remain loyal to a specific alliance.

Mergers and Consolidation (2001-2016)

In addition to airline alliances, the airline industry has also witnessed a wave of mergers and consolidation. These mergers have drastically reshaped the landscape of the industry, leading to the formation of larger airline entities.

Let’s explore some of the major mergers and their impact on mileage programs. Starting in 2001, a series of airline mergers took place in the United States.

American Airlines acquired Trans World Airlines (TWA), while America West merged with US Airways. These mergers resulted in the integration of mileage programs, allowing customers to earn and redeem miles across the combined networks.

It also led to the expansion of partnerships with other airlines within the alliances, offering even more opportunities for mileage accrual and redemption. Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines merged in 2008, creating one of the world’s largest airlines.

This merger brought together two airlines with significant mileage programs and a large customer base. The integration of the Delta and Northwest mileage programs allowed members to combine their miles and enjoy seamless benefits across the new combined entity.

United Airlines and Continental Airlines merged in 2010, forming one of the largest airline companies in the world. This merger had a profound impact on loyalty program members, as the mileage programs of both airlines were integrated into the new United MileagePlus program.

The merger also resulted in changes to partnerships and alliances, with United leaving the SkyTeam alliance and joining Star Alliance. In 2011, Southwest Airlines acquired AirTran Airways, expanding its route network and customer base.

This acquisition brought two unique mileage programs together, with members now able to earn and redeem miles across both airlines. Similarly, US Airways and American Airlines merged in 2013, consolidating two major carriers into the new American Airlines.

The merger resulted in changes and updates to the mileage programs, allowing members to benefit from the combined resources and partnerships of the new airline. In 2016, Alaska Airlines acquired Virgin America, expanding its presence in the West Coast market and strengthening its mileage program.

The integration of the Virgin America Elevate program into the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan allowed members to enjoy enhanced benefits and an expanded route network.


The world of frequent flyer programs has evolved significantly over the years. From the early days of mileage-based rewards programs to the formation of airline alliances and game-changing mergers, these developments have had a profound impact on the way we earn and redeem miles.

As the industry continues to evolve, one thing remains constantloyalty programs play a crucial role in incentivizing and rewarding frequent travelers. So, whether you are a loyal member of a specific airline or take advantage of partnerships within an alliance, these programs are designed to enhance your travel experience and make the skies a little friendlier.

Revenue Requirements and Award Devaluations (2014-present)

As frequent flyer programs have continued to evolve, so too have the ways in which travelers earn and redeem their miles. In recent years, the industry has seen a shift towards revenue-based earning structures and the devaluation of award charts.

In this section, we will explore these changes in detail and their impact on frequent flyer programs.

Shift to Revenue-Based Earning Structure

One significant development in the world of frequent flyer programs has been the transition from a mileage-based earning structure to a revenue-based system. Traditionally, passengers would earn miles based on the distance they flew.

However, many airlines, including Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and American Airlines, have moved towards a model where passengers earn miles based on the amount they spend on their ticket. Delta Air Lines was the first major U.S. carrier to introduce this revenue-based earning structure in 2015 with its SkyMiles program.

Under this system, members earn miles based on the price of their ticket and their elite status level. This shift was a departure from the traditional model, where passengers could earn a fixed number of miles based on the distance flown.

United Airlines and American Airlines followed suit shortly after, implementing their own revenue-based earning structures for their respective mileage programs. The shift to a revenue-based earning structure has been met with mixed reactions from frequent flyers.

While some travelers appreciate the simplicity of earning miles based on ticket price, others feel that it devalues their mileage earning potential. Under the new system, passengers who purchase more expensive tickets earn more miles, which may disadvantage those who are budget-conscious or find themselves traveling on lower-priced fares.

Devaluation of Award Charts andof Surcharges

In addition to the shift in earning structures, airlines have also devalued their award charts, making it more expensive to redeem miles for flights. Award charts outline the number of miles required for flights to different regions or zones, and these charts have often been subject to changes over time.

Delta Air Lines has been at the forefront of award chart devaluations, making significant changes to its SkyMiles program in recent years. The airline removed its award charts altogether, implementing a dynamic pricing model where the number of miles required for a flight can fluctuate based on factors such as demand, seasonality, and ticket price.

This pricing unpredictability has made it more challenging for frequent flyers to plan and maximize the value of their miles. Similarly, United Airlines has made adjustments to its award chart, particularly when it comes to partner award prices.

Some partners have seen increases in the number of miles required for award flights, making it more difficult for members to redeem their miles for their desired destinations. While U.S. airlines have increased award prices, they have generally avoided implementing fuel surcharges on award tickets.

Unlike some international carriers, U.S. airlines do not typically impose additional surcharges for redeeming miles on flights. This is seen as a benefit for frequent flyers, as it allows them to redeem their miles without incurring significant out-of-pocket expenses.

Future of Frequent Flyer Programs

Looking ahead, the future of frequent flyer programs is likely to continue evolving as airlines find new ways to adapt and compete in the ever-changing travel landscape. Here are a few potential trends and developments to keep an eye on:

Airlines Leveraging Mileage Programs for Financing

In recent years, we have seen some airlines turn to their frequent flyer programs as a means of generating cash. This has involved partnering with banks and financial institutions to secure financing using the loyalty program as collateral.

By unlocking the value of these programs, airlines can boost their liquidity and invest in their operations and infrastructure.

Increased Availability of Miles and Potential Award Devaluations

As frequent flyer programs become more prevalent and airlines form partnerships with credit card companies and other businesses, it is anticipated that there will be an increase in the number of miles in the market. This can lead to potential award devaluations, as airlines may adjust their redemption rates to manage the supply and demand of miles.

It is important for frequent flyers to stay informed about program changes and carefully consider the value they are getting from their miles.

Status Challenges and Opportunities for Elite Status

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many airlines made adjustments to their elite status qualification requirements to accommodate changes in travel patterns and lower demand. This created opportunities for travelers to earn or maintain elite status with reduced qualification criteria.

Moving forward, generous status challenge offers and lower qualification requirements may continue to be available to incentivize loyalty and encourage frequent travel.


Frequent flyer programs have come a long way since their introduction in the late 1970s. From the origins of mileage programs to the shift towards revenue-based earning structures, the industry has gone through significant changes.

The devaluation of award charts and the introduction of surcharges have also impacted the value of miles. As the future of frequent flyer programs unfolds, it is crucial for travelers to stay informed and adapt to the evolving landscape to make the most of their loyalty.

Whether it’s earning miles through flights or credit card spending, taking advantage of airline alliances, or maximizing elite status benefits, frequent flyer programs continue to offer opportunities for travelers to enhance their journey and make their travels more rewarding. In conclusion, frequent flyer programs have undergone significant changes over the years, from the early mileage-based earning structures to the more recent shift towards revenue-based systems.

Additionally, the devaluation of award charts and introduction of surcharges have affected the value of miles. Despite these changes, frequent flyer programs remain a crucial aspect of the travel industry, providing travelers with opportunities to earn and redeem miles, access a wider range of destinations through airline alliances, and enjoy elite status benefits.

It is important for travelers to stay informed and adaptable to make the most of these programs. As the future of frequent flyer programs continues to evolve, it is essential for travelers to navigate through the changes and seize the possibilities for a more rewarding travel experience.

With careful planning and strategic usage of miles, travelers can make their journeys more memorable and enjoyable in the years to come.

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