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How much money do loyalty programs make airlines?

June 16, 2020
5 min read
LaGuardia Airport, New York City
How much money do loyalty programs make airlines?
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Travelers go to great lengths in the name of loyalty. Some will even book itineraries with longer travel times, or they will depart from a less convenient airport — all in order to stick with their preferred airline and frequent flyer program.

Loyalty is big business for carriers. How big? American Airlines recorded $5.6 billion in loyalty and related revenues in 2019, with that total including sales to the carrier's credit card partners. Delta Air Lines recorded $9.1 billion in similar revenues and United Airlines $5.3 billion. However, it is worth noting that there is not a single measure for how each airline calculates these numbers so it is not a precise comparison.

But, no matter how it's sliced, loyalty was a significant contributor to the bottom lines of these airlines last year. These contributions amounted to 10% of revenues at United and 19% at Delta in 2019. What's more, those numbers don't even take into account the indirect benefits of hordes of loyal travelers going out of their way to fly their preferred airline.

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“If you get them to fly you, they will like you. If they like you, they will join your programs. If they join your programs, they will like you even more, and then the cycle repeats," is how Delta president Glen Hauenstein described the cycle of loyalty at the carrier's investor day in December.

Atlanta-based Delta is the industry leader in monetizing loyalty. In 2019, the airline renewed its partnership with American Express in a deal that it forecasts could generate roughly $7 billion in annual revenue by 2023. That would represent a 75% increase from the $4 billion in revenue that Delta generated from the relationship last year.

United followed suit and renewed its partnership with Chase in February. At the time, the Chicago-based carrier anticipated the updated pact would generate roughly $400 million in additional revenue this year. United recorded $2 billion in revenue from its Chase partnership in 2019.

Related: The best Delta credit card offers for 2020

These partnerships with card companies may even be more lucrative for airlines than transporting passengers. In a 2017 report, Stifel analyst Joseph DeNardi estimated that the profit margins on sales of points and miles are significantly higher for the carriers than on their core travel business flying people from point A to point B.

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At Delta's investor day in December, DeNardi called the renewed American Express partnership "high margin revenue" for the carrier. Airline executives, however, are not quick to agree.

"There's a lot of schools of thought and debate as to how you measure [loyalty] profitability and what's included and what's not included," Delta CEO Ed Bastian said in response to questions from DeNardi. "You can put kind of whatever margin you want on it. We can debate what the right margin is."

Related: United to mortgage MileagePlus for coronavirus funds, anticipates no impact to members

Bastian instead pointed to Delta's overall profitability and pre-tax margin, which the airline later reported was 13.2% in 2019.

While Bastian may debate the margin on revenues from its SkyMiles program, United generated a whopping 34% pre-tax profit margin on its MileagePlus loyalty program in 2019. For comparison, the pre-tax margin on its overall results was only 9% in 2019.

Chicago-based United called MileagePlus a "core United asset" in a June 15 presentation. The airline disclosed the program's profit margin, as well as other financial details, as it divulged details of a new $5 billion loan backed by MileagePlus.

Related: The best credit cards for flying United

The new loan is just part of a larger package to bridge United through the coronavirus pandemic and expected slow recovery. On Monday, senior airline executives said that the United retains control over MileagePlus and the deal has no impact on members.

Of course loyalty is not all profits. Those miles sitting in your frequent flyer account earmarked for the family trip to Hawaii next year? They are a liability for airlines — or something they theoretically may have to pay out at some point, at least in terms of accounting — until you cash them in for actual tickets. Airlines only record miles as revenue when they are redeemed for travel or another ancillary good.

American had $8.6 billion in deferred loyalty liabilities at the end of 2019. Delta had $6.73 billion in such liabilities and United $5.28 billion.

Related: A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

Featured image by Getty Images