Airlines

TIL that Singapore Airlines, Cathay and MAS once had a combined FFP called Passages

A retrospective look at Passages, the unified frequent flyer program of SQ, CX and MH.

I only got into the miles game sometime in 2013 when I graduated, started flying for work and more importantly, got a credit card. Everything aviation-related before that is a bit of a blur. That said, there are three things I do remember:



Credit for Young Explorer card: Nicolas Lim, Pintrest

I distinctly recall ogling SQ’s Suites when it launched in 2007 and thinking “yeah, I’m never going to get to fly that”. I remember getting excited about trying the business class Spacebed for the first time in 2004. And if I really delve into the deepest recesses of my memory, I can faintly recall being part of the Young Explorer club in my formative years, getting a model aircraft and a reversi set from the stewardess, and being told I was the most adorable kid she’d ever seen. (if you want to go down memory lane with SQ’s cabin products, check out my retrospective here)

My recollections, however, do not extend to SQ’s frequent flyer program. Which is why when pawing through Singapore Airlines’ annual reports to obtain some figures for my Krisflyer blockchain article, I was surprised to stumble upon the following:

Page 15, SIA annual report 2016/17

Wait a minute, I thought. That can’t be right. I was quite certain my dad was accumulating frequent flyer points all throughout the 90s. Did Krisflyer really start in 1999? Was there something else before Krisflyer came into being, and if so, what was it? I mused aloud in the comments section and Tiger9119 cued me into the existence of something called Passages.

Apparently, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Malaysia Airlines once operated a joint frequent flyer program known as Passages. The program started in July 1993 and dissolved at the end of January 1999.

I set out to piece together as much about Passages as I could from whatever I could find online (Passages, would you believe it, has its own sub-forum on Flyertalk). I’m sure those of you who have been in this game longer will have more memories/information to share about the program, so please feel free to chip in.

What is/was Passages?

In the early 1990s, frequent flyer programs didn’t exist in Asia. Airlines in the US had started them way back in the 1980s, but in the words of the LA Times:

“Both (Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific) always sneered at the American carriers for having to offer gimmicky frequent-flyer programs instead of attracting passengers with a good product”

It’s safe to say that Asian carriers weren’t thrilled about the prospect of introducing FFPs, and only did so as a defensive move to stave off competition from the American and European airlines. And it’s not difficult to understand why. The situation is classic game theory. When only a few carriers offered FFPs, they had an advantage. When everyone introduced them, the collective effect was like a fare cut and all carriers lost out.

Passages started in July 1993. Under the program, a customer flying on Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific or Malaysia Airlines could accumulate points for free travel on any of the three airlines. The program was initially open only to residents of Asia and customers traveling in First or Business Class. That’s right, economy class customers had to wait until Krisflyer was founded in 1999 to start accruing miles. Said the GM of Passages at the time, “economy travelers tend to be price sensitive and not frequent-flyer sensitive”.

The Passages business model was remarkably similar to how intra-alliance mileage redemptions work today- when a customer flew on SQ and accumulated miles (the program technically awarded “Kilometers” instead of miles- how quaint!), SQ paid Passages a cash fee. When a customer redeemed his Passages Kilometers for a flight, Passages paid the operating airline a cash fee. The idea was this debit and credit system would even out on average.

You might be wondering why SQ, CX and MH would choose to launch a joint program, given that they competed on the same routes. The thinking at the time was that the FFP was meant to be a competitive response to American and European airlines, not a reason to pick one of SQ/CX/MH over the other two. Moreover, joint FFPs were much more common in the early days- Swissair, Lauda Air, AOM French Airlines, Austrian, Crossair, Sabena and Tyolean were all part of Qualiflyer. Northwest, Continental and KLM were part of WorldPerks.

Passages was free to join and its membership grew quickly: within its first year of operation, it had close to 150,000 members and had partnerships with British Airways, Swissair, Austrian Airlines (that’s what this SCMP article says, but what confuses me a bit is that Swissair appears to have started Qualiflyer in 1992. I’m guessing there was some reciprocal earning arrangement available) and Silkair. By 1996, Passages had 415,000 members (for comparison, Krisflyer had 3,000,000 members as of 31 March 2017), a level which it roughly maintained till its demise in 1999.

How much did Passages awards cost? From what I was able to scrape together:




  • An Economy Class award from Bangkok to Los Angeles: 110,000 km
  • A First Class award from New York to Frankfurt: 180,000 km
  • A First Class award from West Coast USA to Australia: 320,000 km
  • An upgrade award from Economy to Business from Australia to Europe: 130,000 km

I can’t say for certain, but I believe the prices above to be round trip costs. A round trip First saver award from Frankfurt to New York on SQ now costs 152,000 miles (243,200 km), and a round trip First saver award from San Francisco to Sydney now costs 308,000 miles (492,800 km) so accounting for miles inflation over ~20 years that sounds about right to me. An average miles inflation rate of 2% per year? Maybe I am too hard on airlines for devaluations…

Rumours started circulating in late June 1998 that Passages would be dissolved, and in July 1998 it was confirmed that the program would cease to exist from January 1999. Members could still redeem miles up to January 2000, or transfer their Passages Kilometers into Krisflyer, Asiamiles or Enrich at a rate of 1.6 km=1 mile.

Passages did go out with a bang, however, as it started offering fire sale rates for award tickets. CX was offering economy class awards at 25% off normal prices. MAS offered 50% off restricted economy awards. And Singapore Airlines? They offered 50% off all awards. Economy, business, first awards, companion business and first awards, upgrade awards from economy to business and business to first. Hoo boy, it’s safe to say we won’t see that ever again.

What did Passages become?

As the century drew to a close, it was becoming increasingly apparent that customers loved FFPs and they weren’t just a gimmick but a genuine way of swaying patronage. That also meant, however, that by operating a combined FFP SQ, CX and MH were missing out on opportunities to brand and market themselves uniquely. MH, for example, wanted to extend its FFP to include domestic and economy passengers but could not do so under the existing Passages program as SQ/CX did not have domestic routes.

Ultimately, it just didn’t make sense that airlines that were in such keen competition with one another as SQ/MH/CX would operate a unified program and a decision was made that each airline would start its own separate FFP. Thus, Krisflyer, Asiamiles and Enrich were born.

Asiamiles went live on 1 February 1999. Here’s the PR for Asiamiles:



Cathay Pacific Airways today announced details of its new frequent flyer programme “Asia Miles” offering a comprehensive range of opportunities for members to earn and redeem awards for air travel globally. Asia Miles will allow members to earn free flights faster and easier than before, and features accrual in all classes of air travel including Economy Class. The programme begins 1 February 1999, from which time passengers can earn and redeem Asia Miles for free travel to over 800 destinations worldwide.

Asia Miles will replace Cathay Pacific’s former jointly-owned programme Passages and has already attracted an extensive list of partners. Air partners include oneworld™ alliance members American Airlines, British Airways, Canadian Airlines, and Qantas Airways, as well as Swissair and its partners, and Japan Airlines. Dragonair intends to join Asia Miles at an appropriate time in the future and will be a welcome addition.

The programme is supported by an impressive list of financial service partners including Citibank, American Express and Standard Chartered, which will allow customer spending on selected cards to earn Asia Miles. Another key partner is Hongkong Telecom, which will allow earning of Asia Miles through spending on a range of telecommunications services, including IDD, calling card services and mobile phones.

Travel partners include the hotel chains of Hilton, Hyatt, Inter-Continental, Mandarin Oriental, Marriott, Pan Pacific/Tokyu, Renaissance, Shangri-La, Sheraton, Westin and The Peninsula Group. Asia Miles can be earned with these hotel partners for each qualifying stay, and also with car rental company Hertz for each qualifying rental.

Asia Miles membership is open to anyone over the age of 12. Members can open a mileage account and earn miles when they use Cathay Pacific, its partner airlines, or other programme partners. Passengers can redeem these miles for free flights and upgrades. Redemption will be available from day one.

Krisflyer also started operations on 1 February 1999. Here’s the PR for Krisflyer:

Singapore Airlines (SIA) today announced its own frequent flyer programme, KrisFlyer. The new programme will enable customers in all three classes — First, Raffles and Economy — to earn mileage credits that can be redeemed for free travel awards.

Enrolment begins immediately. Members can begin earning and redeeming mileage in KrisFlyer from 1 February 1999.

KrisFlyer is SIA’s first proprietary frequent flyer programme and follows hot on the heels of the Airline’s recent S$500 million product launch, which features new cabin interiors in all three classes. Enhanced ground services and innovative inflight cuisine, created by a panel of world-famous chefs, also form part of the new product.

With KrisFlyer, miles will be awarded not only for travel on SIA services, but also for journeys on SIA’s subsidiary regional airline, SilkAir, or on any of the KrisFlyer partner airlines, namely Air New Zealand, All Nippon Airways, Ansett Australia, Asiana Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Lufthansa.

KrisFlyer members who travel frequently on SIA and SilkAir will enjoy elite status and additional benefits. In addition to qualifying for elite status, First and Business Class customers on SIA and SilkAir will have to opportunity to qualify for SIA’s PPS Club, an exclusive loyalty scheme that recognises and accords special privileges to SIA’s priority passengers. Existing PPS Club members, and Passages members who have travelled in First or Business Class with SIA, will be automatically enrolled into the KrisFlyer programme.

Members will also be able to earn KrisFlyer miles with some of the best global hotel chains, credit or charge cards, and car rental agencies. Members need quote only their KrisFlyer membership number when making a reservation or when utilising the service of one of SIA’s non-airline partners worldwide.

New partners, airline and non-airline, will be introduced progressively.

Children under 12 who qualify for KrisFlyer automatically become KrisFlyer Explorers, a new Young Explorer Club that caters to the needs of SIA’s young jetsetters.

Said SIA’s Senior Vice President (Marketing Planning), Mr Huang Cheng Eng: “KrisFlyer complements our new product, which has been widely acclaimed as the best in the industry. We want our customers to enjoy travelling with SIA and at the same time be rewarded with travel benefits for their support. KrisFlyer offers some of the best mileage award levels. International free travel awards start at just 15,000 miles.”

Mr Huang said the introduction of KrisFlyer means that SIA’s Economy Class has been completely upgraded in all respects. “Now, our Economy Class passengers are not only offered more comfortable seats and served champagne on board, but can enjoy these frequent flyer rewards as well,” he said.

The creation of the new programme follows the decision by Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific Airways and Malaysia Airlines to discontinue their joint frequent flyer programme, Passages, to pursue individual programmes. Enrolment forms are available at SIA ticket offices, Silver Kris airport lounges, check-in counters and on board SIA and SilkAir services. Forms are also available at travel agencies.

A few random things that jumped out at me from this press release:

  • Wow, SQ used to serve champagne in economy?
  • I never knew SQ used to have a partnership with Delta
  • The SQ spokesperson spun the fact that Krisflyer allowed economy class passengers to accrue miles as some sort of X-factor, but in reality Asiamiles and Enrich allowed passengers to do the same from day one
  • The cheapest awards on Krisflyer used to cost 15,000 miles. That’s exactly the same cost as the cheapest award available today! (a round trip economy award to Malaysia/ Indonesia/ Brunei)
  • What’s a travel agent?

Here’s something else I found interesting. Passengers earned miles according to the following scheme:

  • Economy class passengers earned 75% miles flown until 31 Dec 1999, and then 50% afterwards
  • Business Class passengers earned 125% miles flown
  • First Class passengers earned 150% miles flown

It appears that at some point after the launch of Krisflyer, SQ changed its policy so that discounted economy class fares (V/Q/N/T) earned 0 miles. It was only in March 2012 that partial mileage accrual began to be offered at 10% for super deals (T/V) and 50% for sweet deal tickets (N/Q). With the fare bucket revisions that happened in January this year, the cheapest tickets now earn 50% (K/N/Q/V). So, in a way we’ve come full circle and are now back to how Krisflyer was when it first launched!

Conclusion

I guess I really geeked out over this one, but it was really fun to research Passages and see how it set the groundwork for the Krisflyer program we now have today.

I’d love to hear stories from those of you who were globetrotting back when Passages existed. What did you like about it? Was there any elite status to speak of? What benefits did you get? Where did you go?



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12 Comments on "TIL that Singapore Airlines, Cathay and MAS once had a combined FFP called Passages"

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Great read, brings back memories of flying CX as a kid and seeing the Passages ads. There was no elite recognition with Passages – it was purely a redemption kilometres scheme. On CX, Passages was run alongside the Marco Polo Club. Which is why even today, Asia Miles (redemption side) sits alongside Marco Polo (elite side) even though other airlines run only one combined elite/redemption FFP. My Dad didn’t credit to Passages but instead to Ansett Golden Wings which at the time allowed partner accrual on Cathay. This had the bonus effect of double dipping for status, Gold on Ansett… Read more »

Thanks for sharing! I vaguely remember flying on ansett once a long time ago.

Very nicely researched. I’m surprised that so many articles remain available online. You should trawl the databases too.

As an aside, Delta was a partner because SQ used to have a stake in Delta.

On champagne in Y, those were the days when SQ used to believe in being a little bit better than everyone else, and charging a (justifiable) premium. The pioneers’ belief then was that these perks wouldnt cost the airline that much more, but would allow them to collect disproportionately more revenue. That philosophy now seems to belong to ME3 (without the premium)

Once upon a time people used to wear their Sunday best when they were flying. Now you see people in berms and yoga pants. Maybe even running shorts?

Wasnt SQ’s stake in Virgin, which it then sold to delta?

SQ and DL owned about 5% of each other before SQ bought 49% of Virgin Atlantic which was then sold to DL at a big loss. SQ also previously also owned about 25% of Air New Zealand.

I like the bit where only Asians were allowed to join and redeem on Passages. However I assume if Alaska Mileage Plan and Avianca Life Miles start doing the reciprocal we will be shouting.
Great read and research btw.

An interesting read on Travel Points History (TM).

SQ, DL and SR were in an alliance which began in 1989. At the time, hooking up with Swiss was a big thing as we were chasing the Swiss standard of living and being in partnership sort of signalled we were becoming equals.

I didn’t know the alliance had a name – the Global Excellence Alliance – until now though. Such a grandiose name!

https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Singapore+Airlines%2C+Delta+Air+Lines+and+Swissair+introduce+new…-a017521475

Nice article. FFP were a bit more exclusive back in the day. I remember being unable to join British Airways Executive Club until I took a flight in J as recently as 2006.