Perks reimagined! Why bosses deserve those airmiles

3 min read

JOHANNESBURG – Are you plotting your escape from the office to Mauritius for some well-deserved sun-soaked R&R this summer? Lucky you! And if those airmiles you’ve meticulously stockpiled during your 2023 business voyages are financing it, that’s even sweeter. But here’s the twist: is it really fair to your employer? Does the carrot of earning miles secretly encourage you to book unnecessary business trips at their expense?

According to a study, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Frequent-flyer programmes benefit everyone except the employer, says the INFORMS research. Airlines win because these programmes breed loyal, repeat customers. Members of these points programmes win because they’re wowed with flight upgrades and freebie tickets. And employers lose because they end up shelling out more for the travel tab than they should.

The study found that the closer frequent-flyer programme members get to ‘elite status,’ the more likely they are to choose an airline even when it may be more expensive than a competitor’s flight. The result? Employers get hit with an extra 8% bill for air travel.

It’s a well-earned perk business travellers say. Miles compensate for the hassle of business travel, right? But let’s be honest—these aren’t just symbolic points. You can score free trips and upgrades worth real (tax-free) cash. Isn’t it a bit questionable to bankroll personal leisure travel through our employers, especially if it’s costing them?

The rodeo could be coming to an end. As businesses tighten their travel budgets and rethink travel policies to save money, those coveted frequent flyer miles could come under the spotlight, warns Bonnie Smith, GM FCM Travel.

Employees with airmiles: A recipe for overdoing it

Here’s the crux of the matter: when travellers get to keep their miles, it often tempts them into taking trips that might not be all that essential. This can result in pointless, costly travel that keeps employees away from their actual work. Staff members are rewarded with miles without necessarily delivering extra value to their employers.

But what if the employers retained those miles instead? This could prompt a more critical evaluation of the necessity of each trip, making travel decisions more deliberate, explains Smith.

Finding a balance: Perks without going overboard

That doesn’t mean companies have to go total Scrooge on their road warriors, though, Smith continues. The savings in booking business trips using airmiles could be used to improve necessary trips—passes for airport lounges and hotel upgrades, for example. The perks business travellers actually need to be productive.

“When employees can access comfortable airport lounges, they can work more efficiently, catch up on emails, and prepare for meetings in a peaceful environment. Upgraded hotel stays ensure they get a good night’s rest and have an appropriate workspace. These minor investments reduce travel-related stress and fatigue, allowing your team to arrive at their destinations refreshed and ready to perform at their best,” explains Smith.

Recognising the issue, some airlines are pioneering alternative models that better serve employers and employees. Take Emirates’ Business Rewards programme. Companies earn points based on employee airfare spend, which they can redeem for upgrades and flights. But Emirates also still awards individual travellers Skywards frequent flyer miles.

Dealing with the dilemma: Tips for employers

So, what can employers looking to tackle the issue do without making a decision which is likely to be unpopular with their travellers? Smith has the following advice: 

Working with your travel management company (TMC) to smarten up your travel helps reduce the risk of travellers making choices solely for more loyalty miles, she says.  “Introducing a simple approval process ensures that every trip makes business sense. Travellers are encouraged to justify their travel plans, which can lead to more thoughtful and wallet-friendly bookings,” she explains.

Toss in a few cost-conscious tips in your policy, and you’ve got a recipe for travellers who aren’t tempted to splurge just to rack up more miles. “Encourage them to book ahead to get discounts, and you’ll have a bunch of savvy travellers who help keep costs down for business travel,” concludes Smith.