Do frequent flier mileage programs make you dishonest?

I’ve been taking the predictable flack from the Flyertalk crowd after my recent tirade against loyalty programs. I don’t mind; I’m well-protected here in Orlando’s Green Zone.

Since we talk about right and wrong on this site frequently (see this morning’s post about the ethics of double-dipping on an insurance claim) I thought I’d share one reader email about loyalty programs that got me thinking.

It comes to us by way of David Rubenstein, who works for a nonprofit foundation in Washington:

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirportParkingReservations.com. With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at AirportParkingReservations.com, ParkSleepFly.com, AirportParking.com, and ShuttleFinder.com.

If I leased office space for my company and the real estate agent gave me $20,000 under the table as a “thank you,” it would be an illegal kickback.

If I purchased a dozen computers for my office, and the sales agent gave me a digital camera as a gift, that would be a small, illegal kickback.

If I purchased travel services and an airline gave me a portion of a free flight, it would also be a kickback.

If we made the best possible purchase decisions, the airlines wouldn’t waste money on offering frequent flyer miles. They do offer them because they know we will make uneconomic decisions for our employers in order to gain personal benefits.

Frequent flyer mileage programs result in dishonest behavior.

Interesting.

Do loyalty programs make you dishonest? Is there a line between rewarding your customers — and bribing them? And if so, where is it?

The other issue is this one: How can these kinds of loyalty programs, which obviously influence purchasing decisions in a way that benefits the company, continue to be virtually unregulated?

Like many readers of this site, I believe in a free market. But a completely unregulated market is rarely good for the consumer.

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