Loyalty & Rewards

Travelers Can Turn Airline Points Into Purchases At Airports

United Airlines has a new payment option that uses Apple iPads to give the airline’s loyalty program members the option to pay for food and drinks through flight miles while waiting for their flight, Bloomberg reported.

While airlines have been pushing for more options to offer rewards members to cash in their points, United now will allow its roughly 95 million Mileage Plus members a new way to use miles, starting with United’s Newark, New Jersey hub. The conversion rate, Bloomberg said, is about 143 miles per $1, but that’s not a fixed rate.

“Travelers who want to buy miles for cash from the airline pay five times as much. For Newark travelers dining at Saison, a French bistro in Terminal C, a $29 seared salmon entrée costs 4,150 miles, and a $14 sidecar runs 2,000 miles. A bottle of Fiji water ($2.99) is 430 miles. Whether travelers will think this is a good deal will most likely depend on how many miles they have to burn in the first place,” Bloomberg said.

Around 6,000 iPads will be placed around the terminals to allow travelers to scan a boarding pass to keep updated on the flight at places they are dining at the airport, and when the check comes the customer can either pay with money or miles. Other payment options will be incorporated into duty-free shops in United terminals over the next 12-18 months as part of a $120 million renovation, Bloomberg said.

“The payment scheme is a natural progression for airline loyalty programs. Members’ balances have ballooned with the popularity of mileage-linked credit cards and the proliferation of other schemes by which one can amass airline miles. At the same time, airlines cannot afford to give away too many free flights, which is partly why booking award travel can be less fun than going through airport security,” The Bloomberg article said. “Airlines would love for those otherwise-disgruntled frequent flyers to use their miles for something, anything else. Thus, the virtual currency of airline miles needs to migrate into the real world of food, drink, and duty-free shopping.”

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