Not a lot of time this week to write anything that earth shattering, although I did get an email from someone today that got me thinking about social media burnout; that topic definitely has implications for airlines looking at social initiatives. I am still a big believer in the power of social, but it is very interesting to watch how fast this area is evolving. You just need to look back at what I was writing on this one year ago to see how far we have moved since then.

Nothing to do directly with social (although frequent flier programs and their existing member base have never really been well tapped by airlines in this regard), but recently I saw some interesting numbers from ABC news in the US about how many award flights are actually being delivered to members.

American, which has been an industry leader in the loyalty area and operated the largest program until the Delta-Northwest merger, gave away 5.2 million one-way travel awards in 2009, around 1 million fewer than in 2008. It would be one thing if the decreases were just in the absolute numbers of award travelers, but they’re not. Award travelers represented 8.9 percent of American’s boarded passengers in 2009, down significantly from 9.7 percent the previous year.

A similar story played out at United, which reported a decrease from 2.3 million Mileage Plus awards in 2008 to 2.1 million in 2009, and a decrease in award travelers from 9.1 percent of the carrier’s passengers in 2008 to 8.3 percent in 2009.

At Southwest, 2.4 million awards were issued in 2009, down from 2.8 million in 2008. In 2009, award travelers represented 7.7 percent of the company’s passengers, down from 8.3 percent in 2008.

And at US Airways, the number of awards fell from 0.9 million in 2008 to 0.8 million in 2009, although awards as a percentage of total passengers remained flat at about 4 percent.

I suppose the airlines would claim that their programs now offer many more ways to redeem points/miles than just flights, but airlines really do need to be careful that this incredibly valuable assets (ie. the programs themselves) are not allowed to be perceived as worthless by their most valuable customers. Here is a quote from 2008 which is a good warning message to close on.

“I understand why business travelers are disgusted,” the manager of a major frequent-flier program told me a couple of weeks ago. “My bosses want revenue and they want it now. They want it from the partners who buy the miles and from the travelers who earn awards. And they don’t want me to have access to the seats [for awards] that the revenue-management guys think they can sell. So what am I left with? Travelers understand that they can earn all the miles they want. But using them? Not so much.”