Simon Calder: 'Free' flights that now cost a small fortune

The man who pays his way

Airmiles was born in 1988, the offspring of an ambitious and newly privatised British Airways. The reward scheme was a brilliant twist on the "frequent flyer" schemes of other airlines: it offloaded surplus seats not to BA's existing loyal customers, but to a much wider population.

In return for spending money at the right supermarket or service station, or with the right credit card, prospective travellers could accumulate points to buy BA flights – which the airline knew would otherwise depart with empty seats.

Financially, it was an appetising prospect. The merchant bought each Airmile from BA for about 15p each (the exact amount varied, and has always been a closely-ish guarded secret). At the time, the cheapest fare from Heathrow to Amsterdam or Paris was about £100 return. Either destination "cost" 450 Airmiles. Relative to the fare, each point was worth 22p.

Using Airmiles to reach destinations outside Europe was unwise, since with long-haul flights the effective value of each point dwindled to a few pence.

Today, the "fare" to Amsterdam or Paris is 750 Airmiles – a rate of inflation of 2.2 per cent over the years . Not bad, considering the introduction of Air Passenger Duty (currently £12), higher airport fees and the soaring cost of fuel. Uncannily, air fares on the BA run to the French or Dutch capital are pretty much the same as they were at the dawn of time, or at least Airmiles: £100. As a result, each Airmile is now worth around 13p.

From 16 November, your Airmiles holding will multiply by 10 – and instantly lose value. On that date, Airmiles will be converted to a new currency, the "Avios", at a rate of 1:10. My accumulated 3,000 Airmiles – which currently could buy four tickets to Amsterdam – will become 30,000 Avios. That translates as just three tickets, and I must also stump up an extra £267 in cash.

Henceforth Avios will demand that travellers pay some or all of "airport departure tax, customs fines, immigration fees, airport charges, customer user fees, fuel surcharges, agricultural inspection fees, security and insurance surcharges". More regular collectors than me – anyone who has earned points in the past year – will qualify for a "reward flight saver" that amounts to £27 for each short-haul ticket.

"We concluded that fully subsidising [taxes and charges] was untenable," says Andrew Swaffield, managing director of Airmiles. "We're moving more in line with the industry norm."

Some travellers will benefit from the changes. At present, anyone needing a flight from Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester or Newcastle to transfer to an international departure pays a surcharge of 500 Airmiles for the connection. From November, rates will be the same as those from London, representing a cut of 28 per cent in the number of points needed for a flight to Amsterdam or Paris.

Effectively travellers who start and end their journeys in London will start subsidising those who fly from the regions.

How can you dodge the devaluation? Book online by 15 November this year for travel by the same date in 2012. Even if you miss that deadline, you can book through the Airmiles call centre anytime up to 15 December.

Time to say adios to Airmiles as Avios arrive

A mark of Airmiles' success was that it soon became a generic term for any frequent-flyer programme. This achievement was all the greater given that British Airways' reward programme was the only such scheme that did not reward frequent flyers (for whom there was a separate currency, BA Miles).

Why would BA surrender so precious a brand? In order to have a common name across all its airline interests, starting with its partner, Iberia.

"We only have rights to the Airmiles name in the UK," says the firm's boss, Andrew Swaffield. "We needed to find a new brand that we could use globally for all of the frequent-flyer and frequent-shopper programmes."

The result of the search: a made-up name that, says Mr Swaffield, is "evocative of travel and aviation": Avios.

That happens to be the acronym of the Association of Visually Impaired Office Staff. When I called Avios (the organisation) to ask for a reaction to the launch of Avios (the flying programme), they said it was the first they had heard of the idea.

Mr Swaffield says the association is "In a completely different sector to us – we don't believe there's any overlap."

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine