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The only difference between first class travellers and first class idiots is the price they pay.

Free flights for all

Forget airline miles. Leap off a tall building for a free flight. Those excess miles are no problem either. Sell them.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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SOMETHING MOMENTOUS HAPPENED on 1 May 1981. Some highly educated person at American Airlines – lacking useful Scrabble vowels – strung three consonants together and created something called FFP. Later, some very high-ups tried to work out what this should mean. After all, FFP had a certain ring to it. With the foresight of gifted professionals they decided to stick with the acronym knowing full well that the advent of Google some two decades later would yield blindingly fast results for the search query “FFP” – Fresh Frozen Plasma.

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Today’s Frequently Frazzled Passenger (FFP), is still trying to figure it out. The initial concept was simple for two reasons. Airlines wanted loyal customers. And fiddly vowels are hard to pronounce. If you think I’m kidding, try “onomatopoeia”. Onomatopoeically speaking FFP should have been THUNK, which more vividly describes the sound made by people slamming into the pavement after leaping off tall buildings. This is one way to enjoy a free flight when the airline refuses to redeem those laboriously accumulated miles.

Accumulating miles is an addiction. Who needs a mistress in Paris, or a Porsche, when buying eggs can earn miles ...

Accumulating miles has become an addiction. Who needs a Porsche or a mistress in Paris when simply purchasing eggs at the grocery store can yield airline miles? I have collected free frying pans and Hello Kitty souvenirs as rewards for frequent grocery purchases. These are business travel essentials.

Airlines sell miles to sub-retailers at roughly US$0.02 per mile. This is a huge money-spinner for them. Prospective partners are queuing up to pay for the privilege of controlling and doling out points. As a consequence, everyone is offering airline miles today – hotels, car rental companies, credit cards, and possibly even your grandmother (unless she prefers a beau in Paris).

For the past 20 years I have worked to outsmart smug friends and smarmy company accountants, assiduously racking up miles for that exotic holiday. Miles are an Olympian sport demanding detailed knowledge, training, endurance, and skill. On Virgin Atlantic, I need just TWO MILLION miles to get a free ride into space, eventually, with Virgin Galactic.

Airline miles have become stock to be bought and traded. You won't get much. But then, you won't waste miles either

Psychiatrists have treated frequent flier “junkies” willing to go to any lengths to acquire miles by means fair or foul. The use of passenger “mules” to fly, and earn, miles for others, died out after ID checks began to be enforced by the mid Nineties. Nowadays at US airports you get your feet checked as well, and shoes x-rayed (but not polished, which is a minor annoyance). Impersonation is out. You have to earn miles the hard way, by actually flying.

The more you fly the more you earn. Well... Frequent Flyer Programs were conceived as loyalty programs but have changed their colours over the years. The original purpose was to reward passengers who regularly flew one particular airline. In other words, the key issue was how frequently you travelled and not how much you spent. FFPs encouraged brand loyalty and commitment. Loyalty is infra dig now. It’s not how much people fly but how much they fork out. Discounted fares and group tickets yield no miles, or a reduced percentage. Some code share routes can be tricky too.

Then there are “blackout” periods. This is when an airline blacks out due to excessive G forces or whatever and suddenly forgets who you are. Sometimes airlines are kind. I called to request a Cathay Pacific roundtrip redemption ticket for a weekend break. “I have space for you flying out on 23 March,” the lady cooed. “And let’s see… we can get you a flight back on the 28th.” “That’s super,” I sighed, knees sagging with gratitude. “No problem sir, that’s a 28 April return then.” HOW ABOUT I ASK YOUR BOSS TO GIVE YOU A HOLIDAY FROM ABOUT 3PM THIS AFTERNOON, FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE?

Airline miles have become standard currency, stock, to be bought and traded. Companies like Air-Awards (www.air-awards.com), Award Traveler (www.awardtraveler.com), and SmartFlyer (www.smartflyer.com), buy miles from travellers, albeit at vastly reduced values, for resale elsewhere. That’s one way for frequent travellers to divest stock that’s simply hanging about, stock that they may never get to exploit simply because there are too many accumulated miles and eager bottoms chasing too few seats. Airlines decry this as an “illegal” practise. Yet, as exponents of this esoteric art argue, trading miles is not illegal on any national or international statute book – yet. The customer has been given a freebie, and the choice on disposal is his.

Here’s the math. With air miles priced at 2 US cents you should not be coughing up more than 25,000 miles on a US$500 fare. Trading in your miles with a broking company will earn back perhaps between 1 and 1.6 cents per mile. Those 25,000 miles are worth at least US$250, giving you the wicked freedom to enjoy at least three scoops of Haagen-Dazs or to buy Somalia.

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