Do Airlines Know What the Modern Frequent Flyer Cares About?

If you are a frequent flyer, you care about more than just miles — it’s about the experience of a frictionless journey. Frequent flyer programs have long dominated the airline conversation but the discussion has changed over time.
Frequent flyer programs started to reward loyal customers back in 1980s, first pioneered by United Airlines and American Airlines. In fact, the idea was introduced by the airlines but it was an advertising agency that proposed it as a “special gift” for frequent flyers. Today, you don’t need to fly to rake up miles —  you could eat out more, get a new credit card, shop online, or even take an online survey.  

The country’s commercial aviation industry has grown exponentially in the past decade, rising from 745 million passengers in 2006 to 823 million passengers in 2016. With it, the social conversation about airlines also took flight.
Although, consumer complaints registered with the U.S. Department of Transportation as well as on social media have dominated the airlines conversation, frequent flyer programs remain the biggest individual topic travellers discuss on social.
In this post, we trace the conversation about frequent flyer programs on social media and identify how it has evolved over time by answering questions like:

  • Has the conversation grown or shrank?
  • What topics dominate the discussion?
  • Which program is most loved or hated by consumers?


This analysis helped us unearth major topics flyers discuss and how those topics have shifted over the past four years. Although, the frequent flyer discussion has consistently remained the biggest topic of conversation; in 2016, fewer people cared about perks like frequent flyer programs (-4%) while the discussion shifted to other topics like lounges (+4%), delays (+1%) and high airfare costs (+2%).

Even so, the frequent flyer discussion still dominates the airlines conversation on social, making up 11 percent of the total conversation. The conversation ranges from appreciating priority boarding, asking for advice while choosing between different loyalty programs, or registering a complaint with the airline.

Fly the talk

We have established that the social audience is interested and invested in the frequent flyer conversation, but can we learn more about what they discuss? Absolutely.

As we can see from the graph above, travelers are most interested in airline credit cards. Although different airline credit cards offer different features, they are all built on the premise that consumers can use the cards to lessen the burden on flight logistics and receive rewards.
Airlines offer certain credit cards partnering with credit card companies. American Airlines has the AAdvantage Credit Card offered through Citi with three tiers (executive, platinum select, and Citi Business platinum select); United Airlines has an array of tiers for its MileagePlus Credit Card; Delta’s program is called Delta SkyMiles Credit Cards from American Express with three tiers; JetBlue has the JetBlue Card offered through Master Card; and Southwest offers the Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa Credit Card with three tiers.
Airlines, for their part, take the credit card business seriously as it brings them hefty profits — for instance, Delta’s partnership with American Express is expected to yield $4 billion in revenue per year by 2021.

The second-most discussed topic is redeeming miles, which is a core component of any frequent flyer program. Passengers can spend their accumulated miles on an array of items including charcoal grills, in-flight purchases, and cheaper flights.
Consumers use frequent flyer programs to their advantage by upgrading often, and upgrading to first class is prominently discussed on social. Consumers express frustration about the high prices for upgrades and logistical nightmares. However, it is not all negative — some people enjoy cashing in on seat upgrades.

Elite membership is a special class of flyers within the frequent flyers program. Elite status opens up perks that the average frequent flyers member cannot access, like special hotel deals.
Consumers frequently ask is which hotels they can spend their miles on.The discrepancy between post volume for each airline for this topic is the lowest, since people like to evaluate all major airlines to see which FF program offers the best deals with hotels.

Now that we have identified different topics of conversations, we can move on to see how different airlines stack up against each other in these offerings.

Credit for your card

When it comes to credit cards, American Airlines has the most discussed card program on social media. Consumers have many questions about the benefits of owning an AAdvantage Credit Card, particularly about which tier they should choose. People also have many complaints about the AAdvantage Credit Card, lambasting it for failing to deliver promised benefits.
Consumers discuss MileagePlus Credit Card for evaluating whether they should sign up for one. For example, consumers evaluated on forums the routes they travel the most, their home airport, and the frequent flyers perks they care about the most to decide whether they should sign up for a MileagePlus Credit Card.

American Airlines leads the talk again in the miles redemption — much of the conversation is centered around a change they introduced in 2016, switching from awarding miles based on dollars spent rather than miles flown. Many were outraged at this change. United Airlines is the second most discussed airline for spending miles/points. The conversation topics focused on crowdsourcing ideas on where to spend the miles and getting the best return on investment, listing options like airlines and hotels.

When it comes to upgrades, people discuss how United is comparatively better than other airlines for seat upgrades, warning that competitors American Airlines and Delta may sell reserved seats.
American Airlines leads the elite membership topic as well. Flyers post on forums to evaluate whether or not the highest AA tiers are worth it. Others complain about AA elite status falling short of expectations, like being denied a premium seat. Southwest has the second highest discussion on elite membership. People often ask questions about where to spend their miles as an elite user.

American Airlines still ranks first in the hotel deals discussion as well, but not all the conversation is positive. Consumers ask questions about the American Express Platinum points transfers and question whether it provides value. For JetBlue, which ranks the second highest, the popularity of the JetBlue Mosaic Match/Challenge 2016 drove high discussion levels, incentivizing flyers to earn points to reach Mosaic status.

How would you describe your experience?

Classifying top airlines by number of passengers is easy, but grouping them by their performance in different categories and further analyzing consumer sentiment for each airline tells a different story.
In the frequent flyer conversation, in 2016, American Airlines had the most discussion about their frequent flyer program, with 56k posts — followed by Delta, United Airlines, JetBlue, then Southwest.

But high post volume could also indicate negative comments — as in the case of American Airlines and Delta. The frequent flyers programs, designed to incentivize consumers to remain loyal to an airline, do not always strike a positive chord with customers.

Delta is the most negatively discussed airline when it comes to frequent flyers programs, with 14 percent net negative sentiment. Problems related to credit cards anger customers. For some, their credit cards are ineligible for benefits unless they use an AMEX charge card and for others, benefits are not honored. On the positive side, miles do not expire on Delta and elite members receive unlimited complimentary upgrades.

American Airlines has 7 percent net negative sentiment. American Airlines’ change to its frequent flyers program in June 2016 annoyed some passengers who claimed that it only benefits those who fly for business travel. Much to customers’ dismay, American Airlines made another change shortly after. The frequent flyers program switched to revenue-based in August 2016, meaning miles are awarded based on dollars rather than the number of miles flown. Passengers like the wide range of options for miles redemption like rentals, vacations, and shopping. American Airlines acquiring U.S. Airways in 2015 impacted some of the frequent flyers conversation in 2016, with 8 percent of discussion about U.S. Airways out of the overall American Airlines frequent flyers conversation. People wanted to be optimistic about the merger, but many ended up being disappointed about the changes, citing higher costs for lower quality flights as a major concern.

United Airlines has 7 percent net negative sentiment. People express frustration over the sign-in system and lack of online security. On United Airlines, rewards can be used for flights, hotels, and train fares. However, the lifespan of the miles is limited — they expire in 18 months of account inactivity.

Southwest has 6 percent net positive sentiment. People have positive things to say about using miles for business travel with the business travel card, noting that Southwest is their preferred airline for business travel. They praise the flexibility of the Business Select option. Additionally, because those who travel for business may fly more often, it makes economic sense to select a cheaper preferred airline. For Southwest, additional perks include being able to earn rewards in flights and hotels without blackout dates. A detriment of Southwest is that the airline only offers two flights outside of the United States — Mexico and the Caribbean.

JetBlue has 6 percent net positive sentiment. For JetBlue, people are able to earn rewards through social media and there are no blackout dates. There is only one elite membership tier, which is a concern for some who wish for more options. Consumers who have the status enjoy the privileges, while many of those who don’t, ask questions about how to reach that status.

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There were some surprising findings when we looked at the discussion volume comparing frequent flyer programs between competing airlines. For instance, when flyers talk about Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program, they most frequently mention United Airlines’ MileagePlus.
But when flyers discuss United Airlines’ MileagePlus, AAdvantage and Rapid Rewards are equally compared back to UA. Delta’s SkyMiles program is most frequently mentioned with AAdvantage. JetBlue, on the other hand, is not frequently discussed when it comes to comparing FF programs to each other.


Frequent flyer programs have always been a profitable business for airlines, acting as a steady source of revenue. Since these programs are built to incentivize and appreciate loyalty, it’s imperative for companies to take consumer feedback and brand perceptions seriously. Since travelers flock to social media to register their complaints first, it might be a good place to start looking for feedback by tuning into those conversations.
For a deeper look into consumer behaviors related to today’s top airlines, download our complete analysis below.

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