Gold tier, frankincense and myrrh
Wise men (and women), please resist the air miles run
December is upon us. Tis the season for merriment, mince pies, and for capital markets bankers to check their air miles status and make last minute — and wholly unnecessary — flights to tip themselves into an elite tier.
The practice has become so common that there are even well-known ways of doing it bandied about. We’re told that until recently, for obvious reasons, Tel Aviv was the destination of choice for London-based bankers to push their balances into the gold tier, as it offered a generous number of points for a fairly short haul trip. Of course bankers may have to find a different destination this year, but we’re entirely sure a new favourite will emerge.
Some of these trips will be paid for by the banks. It’s tough for a bank to deny staff the opportunity to build relationships with clients, and with a busy January expected there is plenty of opportunity for deal pitching and handshaking to justify trips. But some bankers do stump up for such trips themselves, making it even more difficult for banks to control.
As one pointed out to us last week, a high tier is not just a shiny status symbol — the queue jumping and lounge access it affords can make a frequent traveller’s life substantially more comfortable. These bankers are giving up vast swathes of personal time to travel, and the process can be pretty miserable even with the added luxury, so why shouldn’t they reap the rewards?
All of those arguments make sense, but in a time of climate emergency, the practice should, nonetheless, be stopped. Indeed all through the year, banks need to think about how they can reduce their flight-related carbon footprints.
When business travel resumed at the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, a banker joked that it’s tough to make friends via Zoom, but it is ridiculous that banks and clients vaunt their eco-credentials while, without much sense of irony, their bankers take flights every week to chat with clients about green deals that could have taken place on video calls. There is great determination to save the planet, one five-star hotel and one flat-bed seat at a time.
Not all flights throughout the year are strictly necessary, and those taken simply to boost tier points even less so.
So what is the solution? No amount of fingerwagging from banks is likely to make much difference to the practice of December top-up flights, and the banks may not see it as their problem, given that bankers often pay for these extra flights themselves. Perhaps with more awareness of the climate crisis, well-educated bankers will police themselves? Alas, the prize is too big — it would take a will of steel and real fear for the future, which most people lack, for this to happen.
Elite status with an airline is a huge perk for travelling bankers, but there is plenty banks can do to make it less perky. Banks — many of which are already in bed with airline points schemes via credit cards — should be negotiating lounge access for employees with airlines for a start, or maybe even something that resembles top-tier status that includes queue jumping. Perhaps they could also incentivise having a lower air miles tally while still winning business via additional bonuses. If a bank has saved money by a banker or a team travelling less, then the bank could redirect that cash to those bankers — make their staff pick between gold status and cold hard cash.
There should be a stick too — but not so much for individuals as institutions. Banks should be forced, by law, to publish their flight related carbon footprints. This could also help cut down on private jet trips by bosses. And having to make these reports could lead to business following — for green deals especially — creating a virtuous circle.
Earlier this year, the Financial Times argued that when travelling for business, air miles should be awarded to the employer, not the individual. There is merit in that, although the first to do this would be crucified by its employees.
Banks are keen to be seen as green. But flying to business meetings is an area that, at the moment, is distinctly and unnecessarily brown. It should be turned into an oddity of the past.