The U.S.’ five most valuable airline loyalty programs — Delta Air Lines’ SkyMiles, American Airlines’ AAdvantage, United Airlines’ MileagePlus, Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards and JetBlue’s TrueBlue — ended 2020 with a combined $27.5 billion in rewards program liabilities, according to a new ValuePenguin study that examined annual filings.
Consumers traveled much less in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, while many rewards programs paused miles or points expirations. Because airlines generally keep outstanding miles as liabilities on their balance sheets, this led to liabilities across the five programs spiking 11.6% from the year prior.
But ValuePenguin chief credit analyst Matt Schulz expects to see more travel this year. "I think we’re going to see a whole lot of people burning through a whole lot of miles pretty darn soon," Schulz says. "That may not be the best news for the airline industry, which is desperate to get as many paying customers as possible onto planes as soon as possible, but it is the reality."
Table of contents
- Rewards program liabilities spiked in 2020. The U.S.’ five most valuable airline loyalty programs ended 2020 with $27.5 billion in liabilities, up $2.9 billion from 2019 — and more than triple that of the $889 million increase the year before that.
- Loyal airline customers earned about half the miles they did in 2019. Customers of those five programs earned $6.8 billion worth of miles in 2020, 46.2% less than the $12.6 billion worth of miles they earned in 2019.
- Members of the five loyalty programs only redeemed about one-tenth of the miles that they had earned. In 2020, loyalty program members redeemed 11.3% of miles, compared with 30.5% in 2019. Members redeemed $3.9 billion worth of miles in 2020, down 65.9% from the $11.4 billion redeemed the prior year.
- For every dollar’s worth of miles earned in 2020, customers redeemed 57 cents across the five most valuable programs. That’s a steep drop from 90 cents in 2019 and 92 cents in 2018.
Rewards program liabilities grew by 11.6% in 2020
Liabilities among the U.S.’ five most valuable airline loyalty programs rose by $2.9 billion — or 11.6% — in 2020 from the prior year. Among the main liabilities that airlines carry on their balance sheets is the value of the miles in their members' accounts.
Liabilities don’t always grow significantly, though. From 2018 to 2019, liabilities among these five rewards programs grew by just 3.7%. Here’s a closer look at the past few years:
Rewards program liabilities
2019 to 2020 % change
|Delta Air Lines’ SkyMiles||$7.2 billion||$6.7 billion||$6.6 billion||6.7%|
|American Airlines’ AAdvantage||$9.2 billion||$8.6 billion||$8.5 billion||6.7%|
|United Airlines’ MileagePlus||$6.0 billion||$5.3 billion||$5.0 billion||13.2%|
|Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards||$4.4 billion||$3.4 billion||$3.0 billion||31.4%|
|JetBlue’s TrueBlue||$0.7 billion||$0.7 billion||$0.6 billion||10.9%|
|Total||$27.5 billion||$24.7 billion||$23.8 billion||11.6%|
Note: Individual companies’ liabilities may not add up to the total due to rounding.
A few things to note here:
- Southwest Airlines’ program saw the biggest increase in liabilities — $1.1 billion — compared to 2019, despite program members redeeming more miles (also $1.1 billion) than the other four programs in 2020. Southwest’s customers also earned the most miles in 2020, at $2 billion (more on this next).
- American Airlines’ loyalty program saw rewards liabilities increase in 2020 at a rate of 7.6 times that of the year prior ($580 million versus $76 million).
- By far the least valuable program of the five, JetBlue’s TrueBlue was the only one to see its liabilities grow less in 2020 than in 2019 ($72 million versus $81 million).
A higher total of liabilities impacts consumers because program liabilities affect parent companies’ balance sheets. Many companies — especially in uncertain financial times — are always looking for ways to shore up their balance sheets. Reducing the value of rewards or reinstating expired miles or points could be two ways for these programs to lower their liabilities.
Loyal airline customers earned about half the miles they did the year before
Among the five most valuable U.S. loyalty programs, the percentage of miles earned dropped 46.2% compared to the year before. Again, this is a metric that generally stays fairly consistent. In 2019, members of these five airline loyalty programs earned only 7.1% more miles than they did in 2018 — so, that the value of miles earned dropped by nearly half in 2020 is quite remarkable. Here’s a closer look by value:
Value of miles earned
2019 to 2020 % change
|Delta Air Lines’ SkyMiles||$1.4 billion||$3.2 billion||$3.1 billion||-54.5%|
|American Airlines’ AAdvantage||$1.8 billion||$3.4 billion||$3.1 billion||-47.3%|
|United Airlines’ MileagePlus||$1.3 billion||$2.6 billion||$2.5 billion||-49.0%|
|Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards||$2.0 billion||$2.9 billion||$2.7 billion||-33.4%|
|JetBlue’s TrueBlue||$0.3 billion||$0.5 billion||$0.4 billion||-46.2%|
|Total||$6.8 billion||$12.6 billion||$11.8 billion||-46.2%|
The roughly 50% drop was fairly consistent for most of the five loyalty programs, from Rapid Rewards (down 33.4%) to SkyMiles (down 54.5%).
Despite a valuation of about a third that of American Airlines’ program, Southwest members earned more miles in 2020 — $2 billion versus $1.8 billion. Delta was next at $1.4 billion.
Members redeemed a much lower percentage of miles
Among these five programs, members redeemed only 11.3% of available miles — a steep drop from 30.5% in 2019. Here’s a closer look:
Percentage of earned miles redeemed
|Delta Air Lines’ SkyMiles||10.8%||29.3%||27.1%|
|American Airlines’ AAdvantage||9.6%||26.4%||27.7%|
|United Airlines’ MileagePlus||8.7%||29.8%||29.9%|
|Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards||16.6%||40.6%||41.4%|
Not to sound like a broken record, but the percentage of earned miles redeemed is another metric that generally stays fairly even year to year. In 2020, however, a much lower percentage of miles were redeemed amid stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions that were in place for much of the year.
"It’s clear that most people didn’t use airline-specific miles at all in 2020," Schulz said. "It simply wasn’t an option for most Americans. People were a bit more likely to have used bank-issued points and miles, such as those from Chase and Capital One, but that was in part because card issuers gave cardholders more options, like using them to pay for groceries and other such necessities."
Here’s some context around earned miles that were redeemed:
- JetBlue program members redeemed the highest percentage at 18.4%, compared with 34.5% in 2019 and 32.7% in 2018.
- United program members redeemed the lowest percentage at 8.7%, compared with 29.8% in 2019 and 29.9% in 2018.
Important note: With the JetBlue and Southwest loyalty programs, the cost to redeem an award flight is directly tied to cash fares.
Customers redeemed 57 cents of every dollar’s worth of miles earned
While the value of miles earned in 2020 was down significantly, the number of miles redeemed dropped even further. In fact, on average, customers redeemed only 57 cents of every dollar’s worth of miles earned. Here’s a closer look:
The ratio of miles redeemed for every $1 in miles earned
|Delta Air Lines’ SkyMiles||65 cents||92 cents||84 cents|
|American Airlines’ AAdvantage||59 cents||93 cents||104 cents|
|United Airlines’ MileagePlus||48 cents||90 cents||91 cents|
|Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards||54 cents||87 cents||87 cents|
|JetBlue’s TrueBlue||72 cents||83 cents||80 cents|
|Total||57 cents||90 cents||92 cents|
- United’s program saw the steepest drop-off, as only 48 cents of miles were redeemed in 2020, compared with 90 cents in 2019 and 91 cents in 2018.
- JetBlue customers redeemed 72 cents for every dollar of rewards earned, the highest of any airline. They also started with the lowest redemption-to-earned ratio at 83 cents in 2019 and 80 cents in 2018.
Holding on to airline miles can be a dangerous proposition for a couple of reasons. First, airline miles often expire after a period of inactivity, though that’s not the case with the SkyMiles, MileagePlus, Rapid Rewards or TrueBlue programs.
While many other airlines — including American Airlines — paused expirations during the coronavirus crisis, look for mileage expiration to begin again before too long.
The other reason it's not a great idea to hold on to airline miles is that airlines have a history of devaluing their miles. This means that the miles you’ve been saving forever all of a sudden become worth less than they were the day before.
"Ultimately, this glut of miles might end up leading to more devaluation," Schulz says. "That would help airlines as they continue to try to recover financially from the devastation wrought by the pandemic, but it would not be great news for consumers."
How to make the most of your airline miles in 2021
If you're like the majority of Americans who have been holding on to your miles during 2020, you may be wondering how to make the most of your miles in 2021.
"The best advice is always to use them sooner rather than later," Schulz says. "Airline miles tend to lose value over time, and that’s certainly likely to be the case in the near future, so when in doubt, use them."
Here are some tips to make the most of your airline miles in 2021:
- Use your miles when you're ready to travel. With travel restrictions loosening and international travel starting to open up, look for ways to use your miles.
- But don't be too hasty to get rid of your miles. You don't want to be too quick to use your miles. Using your miles for merchandise or gift cards, for example, can be a poor decision in some instances.
- Consider a co-branded airline credit card. If you have airline miles that may be at risk of expiring, consider getting the airline's credit card. In addition to perks like checked bags or priority boarding, earning miles with the airline's credit card may reset any expiration counter.
- Prepare to be flexible with your plans. With a higher-than-average number of people with miles chasing the same number of seats, you may find it harder to use your miles. It can pay to be flexible with your plans and look for the right opportunities to use up your stash of airline miles.
If travel restrictions continue to loosen, it seems likely that these metrics will start to reverse themselves in 2021. Schulz doesn't think that the number of miles redeemed in 2021 will approach 2018 or 2019 levels because there are still many travelers who aren’t ready to fly yet.
According to Schulz, it’s likely there will be a post-vaccination rush to redeem points that could help shrink airlines’ liabilities, but he also notes other factors at play.
"We are also likely to see an explosion in credit card spending on all types of credit cards that will allow folks to collect more and more miles for future use," he added.
First, ValuePenguin used On Point Loyalty’s 2020 report on the most valuable airline loyalty programs to determine the five most valuable U.S. airline loyalty programs (in order of valuation):
- Delta Air Lines’ SkyMiles
- American Airlines’ AAdvantage
- United Airlines’ MileagePlus
- Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards
- JetBlue’s TrueBlue
ValuePenguin analysts based their calculations and estimates on figures provided in the 2020 and 2019 annual filings for the five U.S. airlines.
The percentage of earned miles redeemed is an estimate based on the value of miles redeemed and booked in 2020 compared to the program liability balance at the start of the year and the value of miles earned during the year. There may be accounting and valuation variations between the airlines.