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Airport and Aviation Marketing Special Report

AIRWORLD PART 7: THE 'DEMON CUSTOMERS'

Inside the 'FlyerTalk' Community

By Published on . 0

ATLANTA (AdAge.com) -- When he coined the term in his 2001 novel Up In the Air, Walter Kirn wrote that Airworld "is a nation within a nation, with its own language, architecture, mood and even its own currency -- the token economy of airline bonus
miles that I've come to value more than dollars. Inflation doesn't degrade them. They're not taxed. They're private property in its purest form."

Huge sub-economy
The details of this "private property" have changed somewhat since then; frequent-flier miles have been devalued by restrictions and the always-falling price of an economy-class ticket, but they continue to underpin a huge sub-economy and, indeed, a curiously elitest society within the framework of Airworld.

Let's look at the demographics. Last summer, the media research firm Arbitron released its Airport Advertising Study, a thorough survey of the income and spending habits of American air travelers. Keep in mind that this study was conducted during 2002-03, and that air traffic has only risen, to pre-9/11 levels, since then.

Arbitron found that 92 million Americans had flown at least once in the past 12 months, and that there was a clear demarcation in income between those who fly and those who don’t. Eighteen percent of all passengers have a household income of $100,000 or more, compared to only 10% of the non-flying public. More than half of all passengers had incomes of $50,000 or more, compared to 37% of those who weren’t.

Luxury consumers
The difference between the “frequent flyers” in Arbitron’s study -- someone who taken four or more round trips over the past year -- and non-flyers was even more drastic. A third of all frequent flyers make $100,000 or more. They’re luxury consumers, more male (58%) than female, and although they comprised just 18% of all passengers, they absorb 60% of all airport advertising impressions thanks to frequency. There’s a reason Arbitron subtitled the report "Exploring an Undiscovered Upscale Medium."

FlyerTalk.com is a major gathering spot for the frequent fliers who are the airlines' 'demon customers.'

But Arbitron’s definition of the frequent flyer doesn’t shed much light on the “road warrior” we know to be at the apex of this demographic pyramid. Who are they? How many of them are there? What do they want? And, of course, what can we sell them?

The best place to start such an investigation is to mouse on over to that point in cyberspace where large numbers of frequent fliers regularly gather: FlyerTalk.com.

FlyerTalk is the community adjunct of the WebFlyer network of Web sites edited and published by Randy Petersen, the media’s go-to-guy on the subject of frequent-flyer miles. But that dry description doesn’t do justice to the impassioned FlyerTalkers who spend a healthy percentage of their non-billable waking life there.

Airlines' best customers
These are, in effect, the airlines’ best customers, and I would argue that in five years or less, they won’t look much different from your best customers –- knowledgeable, permanently plugged-in, eager to be engaged directly by the brands they love (or at least are forced to put up with) and willing to do whatever it takes to arbitrage the opportunities offered to them as consumers into something much grander. FlyerTalkers burn up the message boards with grumpy dissections of bad service, the minutiae of their last trip in first class to Hong Kong and back (there’s at least one thread on FlyerTalk right now criticizing these Airworld dispatches as too bland) and fielding any travel-related question that might appear. “They’re my human-powered, travel-related Google,” one regular told me.

I don’t have FlyerTalk’s membership stats at my fingertips, but the site commands enough power and attention that Continental Airlines CEO Lawrence Kellner invited 274 FlyerTalkers to Houston in April to give their complaints and suggestions a hearing over dinner and drinks. The New York Times caught wind of this meeting a few months later and soberly concluded that “blogs may be grabbing all the media headlines, but online communities like FlyerTalk are wielding a different kind of influence in the corporate world, providing instant feedback from those critics who marketers have called influencers. Just by logging on, companies can study, learn from and even respond to the cacophony of opinions

about what they are doing wrong and what they are doing right without spending a dime on focus groups or market research.”

SAS executives
A pack of Scandanavian FlyerTalkers repeated this experiment last month in Stockholm with executives from SAS, and considering the ongoing shift by the major domestic carriers away from highly competitive short-haul U.S. routes and more toward long-haul, international ones (American has shifted 10% to 15% of its capacity in this direction, and United 14%), these kinds of confabs and direct communication with customers will only become more commonplace. FlyerTalk and similarly-minded sites like FrequentFlier.com, MoreMiles.org, TripAdvisor.com and HotelChatter.com are testbeds for the idea proposed by blogging’s standard-bearers that markets and media are conversations, not dumb, one-way messages.

So who are these people who are so carefully watched by aviation CEOs? I met up with a trio of FlyerTalkers at Chicago O’Hare in American Airlines’ Admirals Club to drink on FlyerTalk’s dime and talk about marketers’ pursuit of them. Over the course of two hours, we whipped out our laptops to scour the Web for upcoming deals and surf FlyerTalk (of course!); determined how easy it is to print fake boarding passes at home good enough to bear the initial scrutiny of security screeners (they’re ideal for sneaking into Red Carpet Clubs, for example) and rolled our eyes at the exploits of the mileage runners –- those inveterate flyers who frequently take 24- or 48-hour trips to nowhere in order to pass their accounts or requalify for some lofty status again next year. “It’s like a drug addiction,” said Jennifer Moody, co-founder of the two-person health-care strategy firm AmeriMed Consulting (and FlyerTalk moderator). “Only you’re addicted to the perks and the status.”

Demon customers
“I’ve read that in recent years, Best Buy has tried to weed out what it calls its 'demon customers.'" said Sameeer Bakhda, a doctor who lives in Chicago. “They’re the ones who clip every coupon, fight over every deal, and basically make themselves a nuisance. Well, we are the airlines demon customers.”

FlyerTalkers have successfully used their communal intelligence and ever-increasing access to formerly privileged information (such as the the airlines’ “fare buckets,” i.e. the pricing data, on each flight) to substitute better information for cash. Thanks to endless cycles of dirt-cheap mileage runs and employer-underwritten travel, they’re able to qualify for elite customer status at a half-dozen different institutions, which in turn pass around free upgrades, tickets, hotel stays, etc. that create the illusion of wealth and a willingness to flaunt it when the reality is often much difference.

While Arbitron’s airport survey might give the impression that the more you fly, the more you make (witness private jet owners), FlyerTalkers’ savviness has essentially decoupled frequent flying from its traditional demographics. They’re younger and more female than the stereotype of the middle-aged, upper-middle-class aerial commuter you’d expect to find in business class. Not that anyone in Airworld wants to hear it.

Debated perceptions
“A lot of the advertisers still see that same perception,” Moody said. “We had a long thread on FlyerTalk -- actually I posted it in both the women traveler’s and American forum -- and the reaction in each was 180 degrees different.” She had discovered a job posting on American’s site at American Way, the airline’s in-flight magazine. The posting described the magazine’s readers as “upper-middle class affluent MALES in their forties travelers."

“Apparently they’ve made some determination that these are their readers. Not that I even flip through it. It gets boring looking at ads for matchmaking services, cigars and condos in Miami.” In any case, the reaction to her post on the women travelers forum was a lot of knowing virtual nodding. The reaction on the American thread by the men present was indignation. “I wouldn’t mind if marketers were targeting me,” she said, “but they’re not.”

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