Feeling No Affinity at 35,000 Feet

October 2, 2007

Frequent-Flyer No-Rewards ProgramAs my close friend and financial adviser Dan will tell you, I’m the last person you should look to for investment advice. My general rule of thumb when it comes to investment opportunities? If it won’t fit under my mattress or doesn’t come with the full faith and backing of the FDIC or Uncle Sam, it’s generally too speculative for me. Dan has long since developed a permanent crick in his neck from all the head shaking he has done over the years while reviewing my near-zero-risk investment portfolio.

My conservative investment style has left me off the playing field many a time when, with the luxury of hindsight, I now realize some clearly great opportunities had come calling. Maybe this is another one of those cases where I just “didn’t see it”, but there was a story in The Wall Street Journal last week about growing pressure on airlines to spin off their frequent-flyer programs that leaves me only seeing the downside for investors.

I obviously understand what’s in it for the airlines and their investment bankers: one analyst estimates that United alone could fetch some $7 billion unloading its Mileage Plus program and other assets. That’s a lot of cash for an airline that emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection just last year. It’s the other side of the equation that makes no sense to me: Why would anyone want to invest in a company looking to untether the one thing that drove customers’ repeat business? Affinity programs are, after all, the value “hook” that compels many travelers to book with one airline over another. I’m certainly one of them – I have more than 100,000 miles with American and a sizable chunk with Continental as well.

Now, I know that racking up mileage rewards with the expectation of flying free on a highly traveled route is the very definition of wishful thinking. But it doesn’t stop me from trying. Sadly, whenever I try to dip into the mileage well to fly direct on one of my frequent trips to the West Coast, it’s always a lost cause. “Sorry, sir, there are no mileage seats available.” Ever.

I thought perhaps that Isabella Goren might have it out for me personally, but it turns out that “Just say no,” is a mantra for all her airline fraternity and sorority brothers and sisters. A consulting firm earlier this year asked 53 frequent-flier-program executives what frustrates customers most, and 65% said limited availability of “saver” awards. And more than half said they didn’t increase availability last year.

I might not be Warren Buffet, but I know when someone is flipping me the bird. It is beyond me why people want to have an “affinity” to companies whose attitude towards customers is “Let them eat cake.”

So let me let you in on a little secret. More than a year ago I signed up with Starwood Preferred Guest Program, which allows you to use points to stay at hotels ranging from the top-tier St. Regis to Four Points by Sheraton. But here’s the catch: There is no catch. The program advertises no blackout dates and in my experience THERE REALLY ARE NO BLACKOUT DATES even at Starwood’s best properties.

My favorite hotel property anywhere in the US is just off San Francisco’s Union Square. The property was converted to a Westin in April and the architects and interior designers responsible for overhauling the place should win an award for making an already great place even better. Despite the hotel’s growing popularity, I was able to use my Starwood points for stays during June and August, at the peak of the summer travel season and both times I was upgraded to a suite. I couldn’t use my points for a stay this Friday night, but I took a certain comfort in learning I couldn’t pay for a room either. (Anyone know another reasonably priced hotel with floor-to-ceiling windows in the Bay area?)

As P.T. Barnum once said, there is a sucker born every minute. American Airlines reportedly has nearly 60 million frequent-flyer members worldwide and no doubt many of them continue to mistakenly believe that their miles will one day garner them their just “rewards.” But over time an increasing number of these members will see the light and favor Starwood or perhaps other hotel affinity programs (a former client of mine raves about Hyatt’s program). When this trend is irreversibly established, my guess is that’s when the airlines will start unloading their frequent-flyer programs to unwitting investors.

Then again, if someone came to me in the 1970s and offered me a chance to invest in a New Mexico software company run by a Harvard dropout computer nerd, I no doubt would have said, “Why would anyone want to invest in a software company?”