The Frequent-Flyer Program (FFP) is a loyalty program offered by airlines designed to encourage airline customers enrolled in the program to accumulate points, also known as “miles”. Once accumulated, the points can be redeemed for air travel or other travel rewards. The number of points earned are based on class of fare, distance flown on an airline or its partners, and the amount paid. Although, these are not the only ways flyers can earn points. Using co-branded credit and debit cards as well as spending money at associated retail outlets, car hire companies, and hotels are among the most popular ways to collect points and earn air travel benefits.
App in the Air users are dedicated frequent flyers, so for our community, it may be hard to imagine what air travel was like before beloved loyalty programs came about. Let’s step back in time and look at their unique history.
The idea of Frequent-Flyer Programs initially gained traction when several airlines began tracking customers and their flight activity in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the idea did not come into fruition until Texas International Airlines established the first mileage-based frequent flyer program back in 1979, who later merged with Continental in 1982.
One of the most widely known Frequent-Flyer Programs, American Airlines AAdvantage Program launched in 1981. As of today, the loyalty program allows travelers to earn miles based on the price of their flight ticket and their AAdvantage status — the higher the status, the higher the number of miles earned. Travelers can also earn miles by flying through American Airlines partners, using a co-branded credit card, and through online shopping or dining rewards programs.
The program began with only 283,000 members in 1981 and has grown to more than 46 million members.
Following American Airlines AAdvantage program, the loyalty programs competition was in full swing, with United Airlines launching its MileagePlus program less than a week later. Along with Delta Airlines launching its own mileage program “Frequent Flyer” in 1981, later renaming the program “SkyMiles” in 1995. Alaska Airlines, Eastern Airlines, and Southwest also unveiled loyalty programs only a few years later.
The very first Frequent-Flyer Programs established operated according to a distance-based structure. The number of points earned were based on the actual flown distance of a trip. The points could then be redeemed for award seats dependent upon the destination and the class of service.
The structure and format of Frequent-Flyer Programs changed when JetBlue entered the arena. Originally launched in 2002, JetBlue updated its TrueBlue program in 2009 from a distance-based structure to a dollar-spent structure. Now, flyers could earn a set number of points per dollar spent on airfare. Following in JetBlue’s footsteps, Southwest similarly adopted the dollar-spent structure in 2011 with its Rapid Rewards program.
As the years move forward, Frequent-Flyer Programs continue to grow and modernize. And it was only in 2006, when the world’s Frequent-Flyer Programs boasted more than 120 million members from the U.S. and almost 10 trillion outstanding miles.
Today, we continue to see the number of memberships and rewards continue to climb higher and higher. As air travel increases and begins to shift back to pre-pandemic heights, take some time to learn about the different Frequent-Flyer Programs, start earning those miles, and redeem great air travel benefits.