3 May 2002

Trillions of air miles and nowhere to go

By Becky Barrow

Nearly eight trillion air miles - equal to 29 million free Concorde return flights to New York - are unused by people who collect, but do not cash, their freebies.

The popularity of air miles, known as "the leading loyalty currency" in marketing-speak, has risen inexorably since their launch by American Airlines in 1981. With the 21st anniversary this week, the worry for Britain's six million air-mile collectors, largely professionals over 35, is that they could struggle to redeem them.

Too many miles are chasing too few available seats, according to an Economist survey published today. Last year, more than four times as many miles were earned as were redeemed, says Webflyer, the website for air mile groupies produced by Randy Petersen, editor of InsideFlyer magazine.

At the current rate of redemption, it would take 23 years to clear the eight trillion miles - even if none was added during that time. Air miles are easier to catch than flu on a crowded commuter train, but the number of seats given to air-mile passengers is not increasing with such success.

Airlines can limit the number of available seats at will, infuriating people with miles to use but no seats to spend them on. A spokesman for Air Miles, the company owned by British Airways, explained that there was "no rhyme or reason" to the allocation of seats, which "varies day to day".

Tesco recently joined the list of retailers, banks, electricity providers and others luring customers with the offer of air miles in return for cash spent at the till. Credit cards are the most common way to earn miles without flying. In March, Tesco's 10 million Clubcard holders added a new group of people competing to spend their air miles.

People earn an average 11,364 miles per year, equal to 25 London to Paris returns. The record holder for the largest number of frequent flier miles - 23 million - could find it a redundant title.