Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.
I’d never really thought about this before.
Until, that is, I recently met a grumpy musician in a bar.
The cause of his grumpiness, it transpired, was his travel schedule, an unpleasant member of his orchestra and an airline’s frequent flyer program.
Which was a first for me at a bar.
This frequent flyer program — Delta’s, as it happened — didn’t look altogether kindly on him flying with his special friend.
We’re talking about a cello, people.
I travel light. I don’t like carrying heavy things through an airport.
I don’t like packing everything into a carry-on in the hope that it’ll fit in the overhead bin.
Some people, though, have stuff. Precious stuff. This musician was one of them.
After the third Manhattan — his, not mine — it transpired that his cello was more important to him than any human being.
So he always bought it an extra seat to travel by his side.
Yet some airlines seem not to entirely respect the fact that a customer has bought two seats.
They become a touch petty about the whole thing.
Delta and American, for example.
Even though you’ve paid for two seats, you can’t claim frequent flyer miles for, say, an inanimate object or a dog that happens to be flying with you.
Yes, you’ve given the airline money for two seats, but these airlines are going to be stingy about it.
I wondered why. Wouldn’t they want to keep their passengers happy with a little generosity, which surely wouldn’t cost them that much?
Wouldn’t they, some might argue, want passengers to see plain justice for the money they’d spent?
I asked Delta for its logic.
An airline spokeswoman told me: “The Delta SkyMiles program is designed for people — which is reflected in the program policy that can be found here.”
Ah. Oh. Yes, I think I understand. But didn’t a person pay for the cello’s seat?
You really don’t want to break this rule. In 2012, cellist Lynn Harrell opened a frequent flyer account in his instrument’s honor.
It took Delta 11 years to bump him from its SkyMiles frequent flyer program. The airline sent him a harsh letter, in which it explained that he could never, ever join a SkyMiles program again.
Neither, presumably, could his cello.
Harrell seemed fairly sanguine about his alleged crime:
I assume that Delta’s long delay in contacting my travel agent (who never received any warning in 2001) and getting around to administering punishment is because of so many other, perhaps more untoward infringements, deserved accelerated investigation. I can only imagine the terrible problems that rise to the level of investigation with passengers stealing toilet paper, pilfering multiple copies of the Skymall brochures, or children sneaking an extra can of soda when the flight attendant isn’t looking.
It surely makes one wonder how many people really do buy an extra seat.
Delta, though, isn’t alone in this rule.
American Airlines thinks the same way. Its spokeswoman told me:
Only individuals are eligible for AAdvantage program membership. Non-individuals including corporations, other entities, animals or blocked-seat baggage are not eligible to become AAdvantage members or to accrue AAdvantage miles.
Some airlines make exceptions for your beloved pets.
But then there’s, oh, United.
The occasionally maligned airline doesn’t care how far you fly. In keeping with the spirit of its president, Scott Kirby, it only cares about how much you spend.
Which puts it in line with Delta’s frequent flyer program.
However, it does allow passengers to accrue miles for buying an extra seat.
A United spokeswoman offered me this helpful message for those flying with guitars, cellos and who knows what other precious items or beings:
A MileagePlus member will earn miles for both of the seats purchased. They will not earn Premier bonus award miles for the seat used for the instrument.
Please, I don’t want to disappear into the finer details of all these programs. To me, the thought often counts more than the actual gift.
I find that some people get so dementedly obsessed with their so-called frequent flyer status and, oh, free glass of champagne on boarding that I wonder whether they endured difficult childhoods and continue to do so.
I will mention, though, that airlines’ generosity is a twisted beast. United’s and American’s miles expire, while Delta’s don’t.
In the vast scheme of airline scheming, this particular frequent flyer awards quirk is relatively small. Except for cellists at bars, it seems.
To me, though, it’s the logic of these programs that’s more fascinating.
I asked each airline why it constructs the rules as it does.
For Delta and American, it seems that them’s just the rules.
The United spokeswoman told me: “Our customers are purchasing that seat, so we feel they’re entitled to the miles that come with that purchase.”
That, I can at least understand.