Tr: virus: Meme Update #28: Frequent Flyer Programs

delriviere christophe (
Wed, 26 May 1999 15:24:14 +0200

-----Message d'origine-----
De : Richard Brodie <> : Meme Update Subscribers <> Date : mercredi 26 mai 1999 15:09
Objet : virus: Meme Update #28: Frequent Flyer Programs

>In this issue:
> Frequent Flyer Programs
> The Skeptic
> Book of the Week: Godel, Escher, Bach
>Frequent Flyer Programs
>If you want to see an example of a designer virus that was created for a
>simple purpose and got WAY out of control, take a look at frequent flyer
>programs. It all started 20 years ago.
>If you were going to fly in the US 20 years ago, there were lots of factors
>you might take into consideration when deciding which airline to fly, but
>basically it was all under the control of a government agency, the Civil
>Aeronautics Board (CAB). Airlines had a nice deal back then: they were
>pretty much guaranteed profitability. If you wanted to fly from Seattle to
>New York, you just picked an airline that flew that route, made a
>reservation, and got on the plane. Prices were largely determined by the
>CAB, and generally made some sort of sense based on the distance involved.
>Then came the airline deregulation of the late 70s. The CAB was eliminated,
>and where airlines could fly (and what they could charge) was more or less
>up to them. With deregulation, not only could competitors start eating into
>the most profitable routes, but now just about anybody could start an
>airline! Something had to be done to ensure that airlines kept their
>profitable business customers and gave them a reason to fly one airline
>What happened at American Airlines in 1981 is a legend in the information
>technology industry. The CEO of American Airlines, Bob Crandall, was
>to the guy who headed up the Information Technology department, Max Hopper.
>It was a typical lunchroom conversation. "How do we get people to fly on us
>given that we no longer have this built-in profitability?" Hopper had been
>thinking about a way. The idea was that if you flew a certain number of
>flights on AA, you'd get a free flight. Because this was designed to give
>them an advantage, they called it AAdvantage. Now no great technology was
>needed to perform this feat. If you remember back in those days, it was all
>done with little pieces of paper that you turned in with your ticket.
>Needless to say, AAdvantage was a huge success. Everybody was talking about
>it. So United, in about six weeks, responded with Mileage Plus. It was a
>similar plan, but with a variation based on the length of the trip: if you
>flew a certain number of miles, you got a free ticket. By 1983, it had
>started to steamroll. The award schedule went on for pages. They really
>didn't know what they were doing. They were in a hurry and didn't put a lot
>of thought into it. But accidentally, they put in a lot of good memes.
>First of all, they set up the idea of a CHALLENGE. People -- especially the
>type of people who fly a lot, high-level businessmen -- love a challenge.
>"Hey, I've flown 100,000 miles." "I've flown 200,000!" Just mailing people
>the statistics set up the framework for a competition. But that was only
>beginning. The thing that really took off was the idea that for cashing a
>certain amount of miles -- 10,000 in the beginning -- you could upgrade to
>first class. I don't think they really thought that upgrades would be such
>big draw, but they started to appeal to the idea of ELITENESS. Coach became
>more and more of a cattle car and upgrades gave people a way of getting OUT
>of coach.
>I don't know who came up with it first, but the idea of LEVELS in
>frequent-flyer programs really appeals to people who have grown up in the
>Boy Scouts, the Army, or corporate ladders. What do you get when you climb
>the ladder? It doesn't really matter. United's 100K-mile level (they call
>"1K" for unknown reasons) hardly gives you any benefits over their 50K
>level, but want it we do (even me!) As we know from Virus of the Mind,
>people love to climb in a status hierarchy. Napoleon said, "A man will
>gladly give his life for a shred of cloth and a scrap of metal." How
>surprised should we be, then, to find we're willing to connect in Denver in
>December for the prospect of a gold-colored plastic card and the lofty
>of "Premier Executive," "Platinum Medallion" or "Chairman's Preferred"?
>the modern equivalent of the aristocracy!
>As the virus mutated out of control, it became a much bigger part of
>operations than anyone had ever imagined. One thing the airlines weren't
>expecting is accruing a whole lot of liability in the form of unredeemed
>miles on people's accounts. Enter expiring miles. They pissed off a lot of
>their most loyal customers, and now we're back to non-expiring miles,
>especially for the best customers. And you know what? A lot of those people
>are never going to redeem their miles. They're just in it for the memes.
>The people who invented it, at American, now wish it would all go away.
>Flights to Hawaii are a third full of unpaying customers. Millions are
>on collateral material. But they are now a slave to the virus they created.
>If American stopped offering AAdvantage tomorrow, a million of their best
>customers would flee to competitors in a heartbeat. Even Southwest has to
>have it! Now when best friends travel together, they argue over which
>airline to fly! And through these programs the airlines have also created a
>feeling of entitlement. As a Gold member, I like to be treated like gold.
>There's nowhere to go but down. In the beginning it was American
>Now it's BreAAk Even.
>I have been a member of United Airlines Mileage Plus for 17 years. I
>correspond with other frequent fliers on the FlyerTalk bulletin board and
>listen to stories of the lengths people go to feed their mileage addiction.
>(One bulletin board contributor even goes by the handle "Mileage Addict.")
>It is not at all uncommon for people to make extra connections, fly from
>Seattle to London via Washington, D.C., or even take an around-the-world
>trip in order to retain their status at the top of the elite ladder. In
>of the programs, it takes 100,000 actual flight miles per calendar year to
>achieve top status. But when you get there, are the rewards commensurate
>with the effort expended and loyalty shown? Or is there only fools gold at
>the end of the rainbow?
>A little of both. United, the world's biggest airline, has a few perks
>reserved for their 100K flyers: special service desks in some airports to
>handle canceled flights and missed connections; waiver of that annoying $75
>change fee in some cases for domestic flights; and the most important
>benefit, first priority on upgrades from the ever-more-sardine-can-like
>coach cabin into the tolerable front of the plane. But, really, it's
>that money can't buy, and you have to begin to wonder how much of a chunk
>your life you want to devote to bending over backwards to achieve the
>highest levels of these programs. Would you fly 8 hours out of your way for
>$200? Would you do it for 10,000 frequent flyer miles? What is your time
>worth to you?
>The FF programs are one of a class of cultural institutions that have
>evolved to give us the illusion of power, status, and security. These are
>experiences we all crave to one degree or another, because in evolutionary
>history craving these things led to an improved chance of survival and
>reproduction. There is nothing wrong with enjoying these feelings. What is
>productive, though, is to ask yourself if this is the most valuable way to
>enjoy those feelings. In other words, can you imagine putting the time,
>money and energy into some other endeavor that not only gives you a sense
>power, status, and security, but also puts you on the path to creating
>something of lasting value?
>Frequent flyer links:
>The WebFlyer from Inside Flyer Magazine:
>FlyerTalk Bulletin Board:
>The Airline Mileage Workshop:
>The Skeptic
>With the publication of the first book on memetics from an academic press,
>the field has attracted the notice of people who until now could afford to
>dismiss the theory as unworthy of their attention. Now it is beginning to
>get the critical attention it deserves. Skepticism is an important part of
>the scientific method. It serves to keep theorists honest and searching for
>experimental data to prove out their theories.
>The cornerstone of modern skepticism is the Skeptics Society, which
>publishes an excellent free newsletter. I highly recommend that all Meme
>Update subscribers also subscribe to the Skeptic Hotline by sending
> right now.
>Book of the Week
>Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
>by Douglas Hofstadter
>If you haven't read what some people consider the greatest book ever
>written, take the opportunity to buy your very own copy of the 20th
>anniversary edition of this Pulitzer-prize-winning classic of art, science
>and philosophy. It's difficult to imagine anyone reading this masterpiece
>and not becoming entranced by the beauty of science, the science of beauty,
>the Zen of illogic, the logic of Zen, and the mystical threads that weave
>together the life of even the most rational of skeptics. This is one of my
>favorite books of all time. To quote futurist and boy genius Eliezer
>Yudkowsky in his review of GEB: "It is a terrible thing to contemplate that
>150,000 people die every day without having read this book. Don't let it
>happen to you."
>To order with your Memetics Bookstore discount, click on
> right now.
>All the best memes,
>This is Richard Brodie's Meme Update Newsletter. To subscribe/unsubscribe,
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>Meme Central has links to lots of interesting things having to do with
>self-replicating ideas:
>You can order books mentioned here and others through the
>Memetics Bookstore at
>My book VIRUS OF THE MIND is now in its fifth printing (thanks Oprah!) You
>can read the first chapter on line at
>Spread the meme! Forward this copy of Meme Update to others who need to
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