The Aeroplan Game: An ethnography

AeroplanSteph’s sister Jody says my posts are boring. I choose to interpret this to mean that my posts are fascinating, but on topics which do not readily proclaim their relevance to her life. In any event, today’s will be no exception, because I’m going to be talking about frequent flyer miles; but also about voyeurism, so there’s some excitement for you.

Aeroplan, and programs like it, are a real challenge for geeks. On the one hand, as a demographic with higher-than-average concern for issues of digital surveillance and privacy, loyalty programs like Aeroplan which allow a company to profile your purchases and predict which brand of condom you will enjoy are viewed as being somewhat intrusive. On the other hand, Aeroplan miles bear a disturbing resemblance to points, and games with points, where intelligence can be applied to earn more points, well brother, that might well be called our oeuvre.

First let me acknowledge that this is an absurdly decadent game. Most of the world is having trouble putting together a decent meal and avoiding cholera, so it is only because I am taking the guilt as granted that I am not dwelling on the absurdity. If you can find a way to convince your company to re-allocate its business travel budget to helping some part of the world become a little more tolerable then I honestly and earnestly implore you to do so.

Here’s how most people view Aeroplan miles (substitute your FF program here):

  1. You need to go somewhere
  2. You go there
  3. You get miles
  4. You spend them on stuff

This is a passable game – it has rules and a scoring system and prizes, but there are a couple problems with this version. First of all, it’s not nearly complicated enough yet to reach critical geek mass. We like to have options, and since external factors often dictate where we go (e.g. business trips), we’re going to be looking to introduce that complexity in the going thereto. Also the prize structure is weak – spending points on stuff is nice, but what would make this shit crackrock-addictive is if there was, I don’t know, something like “experience levels,” so that we could demonstrate our greatness and have it objectively confirmed. Air Canada calls them “Prestige Status,” “Elite Status,” and – get ready for it now because if you haven’t encountered it before, you will be impressed – “Super Elite Status” [emphasis mine].

Now we’ve got ourselves a game.

The rules are whatever the airline will let you get away with, and someone at Aeroplan really loves inventing new rules. There are more than 20 booking classes on domestic flights alone. There are promotions that give you double or triple miles to certain destinations. With each upgrade in status you win upgrade certificates to move from economy to business class (or first on flights with 3 classes) but there are different kinds of upgrade certificates, and SSWUs (Special System-wide Upgrade certificates) are more powerful than plain old SWUs. Don’t even bring up the NAUs (North America only.)

Status comes with other privileges too – Es and SEs (it a geek game, so acronyms run rampant, try to keep up) have access to Maple Leaf lounges – posh suites with free food, drink, power, and internet away from the gate lice that occupy the rest of the terminal. Lousy old P’s don’t rate unfettered access though they do earn a couple one time passes to sample the high life. SEs that go over the top in a given year with miles flown win particularly nifty gifts like the ability to bestow status on their friends. I am not making this up.

But how, you ask, do you play? If work needs to fly me from Toronto (YYZ) to Omaha (OMA) then that’s what I do. Fine, sure. The trick is that as long as you keep the price reasonable, work doesn’t particularly care how you get there. Watch this stuff go down, it’s awesome:

  1. A straight line routing from YYZ to OMA is 1688 miles round trip according to WebFlyer (you knew there would be tools).
  2. It will never be quite that lame though, since flights from YYZ to OMA usually have a layover at ORD (Chicago O’Hare, the hub to end all hubs). YYZ-ORD-OMA is 1702 miles roundtrip. That’s a little better, but not much. Test itineraries for this flight put it at around $550 in late January.
  3. Thanks to the fine lads and ladies at ITA Software, we can search the airlines’ current routings using a pretty nifty query language. So what if we take ORD out of the equation? The next logical hub is DEN (Denver), and there is plenty of inventory on that route. Roundtrip: 3560 miles. Price: $540.
  4. We’re not done yet – running down the list of flights you can find an OMA-DEN-YYC (Calgary!)-YYZ. This one’s actually priced at $480 roundtrip, but only includes YYC on the return leg. That’s 5079 miles, if we could get it on the outbound leg too, we’re at 6589 miles. We’ve nearly quadrupled the miles, and saved 15% on airfare.

I’m just scratching the surface, but I hope you see how fun this could be. Yes it increases your travel time, though not as much as you might think. Yes it also increases the odds of something going wrong and maybe, while we’re at it, produces more air pollution – these are all legitimate concerns. Given that people have died while playing MMORPGs because they refused to get up to eat or sleep though, I hope you will not find it too surprising that a large number of people find this whole game quite engaging.

There’s even a phenomenon called a “Mileage Run” wherein a person will fly from YYZ to YYZ, effectively. The airlines won’t let you book that directly, but if you’re clever about it, you can book a flight around the continent for a couple hundred dollars that yields thousands of miles for a day’s work. This is the time of year when mileage runners go crazy because status is earned year by year, so in order to have Elite status in 2007 they need their 35000 miles or 50 segments by December 31. Better than a World of Warcraft raid, or so I hear.

Like a lot of geek amusements I watch it more than I live it. I’ll dabble of course, but mostly I enjoy understanding the game and the rules and let other people actually slog through 8 airports in 36 hours. This is where that voyeurism comes in – you can see them at their work on boards like flyertalk. I’ve always enjoyed sort of listening in on the conversations of domain experts – across the entire expanse of human expertise these groups have strong commonalities. They develop languages of jargon that are impenetrable to passers-by without a key. They develop hierarchies of expertise, they form tight communities, and yet they are welcoming of new members who earnestly want to learn. Their gathering places are a peek into a different world and are often extremely informative. If you get tired of reading about the passengers, is an equally, if not more, fascinating window into the world of the crew.

I won’t even make Prestige this year but next year I’m routing all my flights through Tokyo.

2 thoughts on “The Aeroplan Game: An ethnography

  1. I live this game, although I choose my routings based more on time and money than points and money. One other fun dimension of this game — again similar to MMORPGS — is one of allegiance. For instance, most Canadians will choose to side with Star Alliance since Air Canada is a charter member (along with United, US Airways, Luhfthansa, Thai, bmi, Swiss and others). When an Aeroplan member hits P, they also hit *S (Star Alliance Silver) status, which bestoes upon them … well, honestly, not a hell of a lot other than access to seats that are forward of the wing on some flights. Hitting E, though, well, that’s the gateway to *G (Star Alliance Gold) which means:

    Lounge access at any Star Alliance lounge
    Access to “first class” security lines in most US airports
    priority status for bumps, rescheduling on cancelled flights
    first-board status which helps you claim valuable overhead bin space

    Of course, this means that you need to avoid routings that put you in the territory of a competing alliance such as Sky Team, or airlines that (gasp!) don’t offer frequent flyer points at all. Sometimes this means passing on a preferable routing. I have been known to do this.

    A couple other notes of interest: booking a Tango fare through Air Canada’s website nets you “half status” (you didn’t mention that, did you? Not all miles are equal! While full fare tickets get “status miles” which count towards one’s status, cheaper tickets like the Tango classes will often only count a percentage of miles as “status”, while the others are run-of-the-mill miles like those one accrues at Esso stations, to be used only on rewards) yet booking that same ticket on Expedia will net you full status. Lord knows why, but it argues for skipping the $5 discount you get on AC’s website. Also, the SWU upgrade certificates might as well be toilet paper – I have never met anyone who books a fare class that’s available for upgrade. The SSWUs, though, are dark blue gold and should be cherished accordingly.

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