When you start being enthusiastic about whatever it is you like, that is the golden age for you. – Michael Winterbottom
In the early 1900s, the golden age of rail and sea travel was in full swing. Streamlined trains like the California Zephyr, Empire Builder and 20th Century Limited whisked passengers across the USA in Hollywood style. Even more glamorous were the great ocean liners which transported the wealthy and well-to-do across the Atlantic in luxurious surroundings. Eventually though, the rise of affordable automobiles and air travel ended this era of elegance.
But did you know there was also a golden age of frequent-flyer programs?
While I am not old enough to remember those legendary named trains and ships, I did live through and experience the heyday of the frequent traveler, which lasted just over a decade from 1981 to 1995. After graduation and starting my first full-time job with the NCR Corporation, I joined Delta’s original Frequent Flyer customer loyalty program. While other airlines also offered similar travel incentives, the benefits really piled up when flying mostly with one company.
How It Worked
Delta awarded a minimum of 1,000 miles for every segment flown (or the actual mileage if longer). Elite-level status was earned either by reaching a mileage threshold or flying a required number of segments (30 for silver, 60 for gold). Living in a non-hub city meant that almost every round-trip would earn a minimum of 4,000 miles AND four segments. Furthermore, first-class travel scored double points, even if a mileage award was used to upgrade from an economy-class ticket.
I soon became adept at working the system. Delta’s MX reward certificates cost only 2,500 points to redeem, yet secured a first-class seat plus double the miles! This meant that on a four-segment trip (which all of mine were), I would actually receive a net gain of 1,500 extra points for the privilege of flying first class! The double points also brought you more quickly to elite level, which meant special check-in lines, early boarding and even more mileage bonuses.
Some colleagues even booked domestic tickets with as many as ten segments (e.g. Columbia-Atlanta-Dallas-Salt Lake-LA-San Diego and back) in order to earn more credits and achieve premium status. It took only three such trips to reach silver level!
Why Not Just Fly Direct?
Why go through all the trouble of extra time, delays and potential lost baggage? Simple—the rewards were fantastic! From first-class upgrades to free transatlantic tickets, the portfolio of prizes was well worth the effort. When my wife and I got married in Hawaii, 14 guests flew free using 325,000 of our accrued award miles. Free watches, luggage, golf clubs and many other gifts were also available.
I even scored the jackpot of all prizes, a first-class ticket from North America to Australia, which included unlimited stopovers in the South Pacific and a connecting domestic first-class ticket (for only 140,000 points!). This is still the only time I ever flew international first class. I will never forget the flight attendant cooking a made-to-order omelet right at my seat!
The End of an Era
All this free flying fun finally came to an end in 1995. The airlines, using advanced decision-support computer systems that I was selling them, determined travelers like me were not their most valuable customers. Many gold-level flyers flew the same cheap routes every month, hogged the VIP airport lounges, and clogged the call centers asking for free last-minute upgrades. Some elite status members didn’t even travel—they simply earned mileage from credit cards used for business purchases!
New loyalty programs introduced in 1995 awarded points based on actual ticket cost, not segments or distance traveled, thus ending the golden age of frequent flyers. I don’t blame the airlines, as they have a very difficult business to run. In reflection, I consider myself lucky to have visited so many amazing places, both on business trips and free award travel.
It sure was fun while it lasted.
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