The Special Benefits Small Businesses Can Discover Through Airline Programs

Your small business can earn free flights, elite status, lounge passes, and more by banking work travel by its employees.

The Special Benefits Small Businesses Can Discover Through Airline Programs

You just need a handful of employees to take advantage of most programs.

Photo by A Lot Of People / Shutterstock

Most airlines have frequent flier programs that reward individual travelers for their loyalty–you take a flight and then earn points or miles that you can then redeem for future trips. But did you know that many airlines also field loyalty programs specifically for small businesses? By taking advantage of them, your business can earn rewards such as free flights, lounge access, and even the ability to confer airline elite status on employees. Here are the details on secret benefits that small businesses can earn through airline rewards programs and how to take advantage of them.

What is an airline business rewards program?

If you work for a large company, your travel planning desk might purchase a certain number of tickets or dollars’ worth of travel through various airlines’ corporate travel departments. By doing so, companies can enjoy discounts on bulk travel as well as other benefits for their employees. But small- and mid-size companies might not spend enough on travel to qualify for these incentives.

By contrast, airline business rewards programs are more like frequent flier programs for individuals but for small businesses instead. As with traditional mileage programs for individuals, companies earn rewards based on the travel purchased for and completed by their employees. Companies can then redeem the rewards they earn for a broad range of different perks, such as award flights or airline lounge membership; it all depends on the specific airline program in which they participate.

If you’re the employee, you might be skeptical and think that if your company is earning rewards based on your travel that you’ll be left high and dry. The good news is, airline business programs operate totally separately from frequent flier programs for individuals. So the person doing the actual flying still earns miles as usual, while their employer also earns rewards. It’s basically like double-dipping on work travel.

Adding another layer of flexibility is the fact that the employee whose travel earns the rewards through the airline business program does not have to be the same person for whom those rewards are eventually redeemed. That gives small businesses an extra layer of flexibility when it comes to earning and redeeming through one of these programs.

The three major legacy carriers in the United States—American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines—all have rewards programs for small businesses, as do a number of international airlines, so chances are your business can earn rewards on work travel no matter where employees are flying.

The best airline business rewards programs

Here are some of the most important airline business loyalty programs now, how to join, and how they function so you and your company can maximize your work travel to the fullest.

American Airlines Business Extra

American Airlines’ Business Extra is typical of how airline business loyalty programs work. Businesses can enroll for free, and then when employees book travel, they can list the company’s Business Extra number in their reservation. To be eligible to join Business Extra, your company must have two or more employees, and it cannot have a corporate sales agreement, discount, or other agreement with American Airlines, British Airways, Iberia, or Japan Airlines.

Companies earn one point per five dollars they spend on qualifying flights on American Airlines itself, as well as partners, including British Airways, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, and Qantas. Once you start earning enough points, you can redeem them for a variety of rewards, such as flights on American Airlines, British Airways, Iberia, and Japan Airlines; seat upgrades; Gold elite status with American Airlines’ AAdvantage frequent flier program (basically you can gift it to an employee who will enjoy the perks while traveling); and Admirals Club day passes and full memberships.

For some context, a one-year Admirals Club membership requires 3,300 Business Extra points, equivalent to spending $16,500 with the airline. Admirals Club memberships usually cost up to $650 per year for non-elite fliers. A round-trip economy award ticket on American Airlines within North America starts at 2,000 points ($10,000 spent), while a round-trip ticket on British Airways or Iberia from North America to Europe would start at 6,000 points ($30,000 spent) in economy and 14,000 points ($70,000 spent) in business class.

A company clearly has to spend a lot of money with American Airlines and its partners to start seeing any valuable returns, but if your business requires significant work travel, signing up for Business Extra is a good way to earn even more rewards.

Delta SkyBonus

Of course an airline with a global reach like Delta has its own business rewards program, SkyBonus. It is open to small- and mid-size companies that spend at least $5,000 on “eligible flight revenue” (tickets purchased through Delta) for at least five unique employee travelers each calendar year.

Companies earn points on Delta tickets as well as those purchased in North America with select airline partners, including Air France-KLM, Virgin Atlantic, and Aeromexico, as well as on SkyTeam partner flights marketed by Delta and purchased with a Delta ticket number. (Don’t overcomplicate it; just buy your tickets through Delta and you should be fine.)

The earning formula is rather complicated and depends both on the fare class of the ticket purchased as well as whether you are flying into or out of a Delta hub like Atlanta or Detroit, among other factors. However, companies can expect to accrue between 1 and 30 points per dollar spent—generally, inexpensive economy tickets into or out of hubs will earn the fewest points, while pricey fares in premium cabins out of nonhub airports will earn the most.

Once your business starts racking up points, you can redeem them for award tickets, systemwide upgrades (say, if you purchase an economy ticket but want to bump up to business class), Delta Sky Club visits and memberships, Delta Silver Medallion elite status for an individual, and even just beverage coupons toward in-flight drinks purchases. (These were temporarily discontinued during the pandemic, but should be available again soon.)

Flight rewards start at 90,000 points (between $3,000–$90,000 in spending) round-trip within the U.S. and Canada, excluding Hawaii, in economy, though you can expect to pay 175,000 points ($5,834–$175,000 in spending) for a coach ticket between North America and Europe, or 180,000 points ($6,000–$180,000 in spending) across the Pacific.

If that sounds complicated, have a look at Delta’s SkyBonus University tutorial videos, which explain the ins and outs of the program succinctly.

Southwest SWABIZ

Although Southwest Airlines is better known for a laid-back, leisure-driven vibe, the airline flies a comprehensive network of routes within the U.S. that position it well for business travelers.

If your company tends to book tickets on the carrier a lot, you might want to check out its SWABIZ corporate booking tool. There are no points or rewards charts to cite, but corporate travel bookers can ask about discounts, promotions, and other offers both with Southwest and its hotel and car rental partners. By funneling more of your business travel spending through here, you should be able to score savings on reservations while your employees can continue to earn Rapid Rewards points for their own travel goals.

United PerksPlus

Airlines seem to like compound names for their business rewards programs, and United PerksPlus is no exception. To register, your company needs at least five verifiable employees and to hold a valid company tax identification number (or something comparable if it is headquartered outside the U.S.). Your company can earn rewards with flights on United, United Express, All Nippon Airways (ANA), Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Lufthansa, and Swiss International Airlines.

With PerksPlus, businesses earn between one and six points per dollar spent on airfare. The number of points depends on the type of fare purchased (discounted economy, business class, last-minute or premium fares, and so on) and whether travel is to or from a hub market, such as San Francisco or Chicago. As with Delta SkyBonus, you’ll earn more points per dollar on expensive tickets between nonhub destinations. Tickets from hubs in discounted economy fare codes will earn the fewest points.

PerksPlus points can then be redeemed for award tickets, United Premier Silver or Gold elite status, United Club memberships, drinks vouchers, and more. To throw some numbers out there, a round-trip economy ticket within the 48 contiguous United States, Alaska, Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico, or Central America starts at 40,000 points ($6,667–$40,000 in spending), while business class would start at 180,000 points ($30,000–$180,000 in spending). Want to reward an employee with the perks of elite status? A year of Premier Silver status requires 60,000 points ($10,000–$60,000 in spending), while Gold would be 120,000 points ($20,000–$120,000 spending), and a year of United Club membership costs 65,000 points ($10,834–$65,000 spending) instead of the usual $650 fee.

Companies that spend $400,000 or more in qualifying revenue each year might be eligible for an elite tier of PerksPlus called Navigator. Achieving this echelon means earning 15 percent more points on eligible qualifying flights, quarterly reporting to help you track your spending, and additional redemption options such as gifting MileagePlus Premier Platinum status to employees. So if your company does a lot of business with United, you should inquire about whether you qualify for Navigator and its enhanced benefits.

International airline business programs

Certain international carriers host programs of their own targeted at corporations and small businesses. If your travels take you overseas with regularity, check whether the airlines your company books tickets on most often have business loyalty programs of their own. Among the ones to research:

Companies can reap plenty of potential perks from their employees’ travel by participating in airline business loyalty programs. The individuals flying will continue to earn points or miles in their frequent flier accounts as usual, while employers can stockpile spending-based points for rewards like free flights, automatic elite status, and airline club memberships. Small business owners should investigate whether their preferred airlines include such a program so that they can maximize their everyday travel spending. Employees, meanwhile, can also benefit from their company participating in an airline business rewards program since they might be the lucky recipients of a cabin upgrade on a long-haul flight or a year’s worth of elite benefits like free checked bags and priority boarding. In short, airline business loyalty programs are a win both for road warriors and the companies for which they fly.

>> Next: The Best Airline Credit Cards

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