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14 June 2006
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I Must Be Wrong

Of course I'm not, but I have two prominent ethics professionals who disagree with my position.  One is Randy Cohen, "The Ethicist" of the New York Times, who had the grace to respond to my email on the subject, albeit not enough to publish my email and respond in his column.  The other is Ronald Khol, the editor of Machine Design, who selected my letter for public exposure and riposte.  While Machine Design is a trade journal whose name pretty much describes its otherwise politics-free content, Khol has a very traditional-conservative outlook and his editorials reflect it.  One of my favorites of his is an annual, two-part series in which he simply notes the price of things, from Bill Gates net worth to the price of, for all I know, birdseed.  There is much irony-of-juxtaposition in these columns, which are broadly separated into dollar-order-of-magnitude paragraphs, and range from gigabucks to pennies spanning the two issues.  Like Groucho, Khol is "against it," and if the government is involved, doubly so.  Hence my surprise when he endorsed government regulation of the airlines!  Of course I had to comment:

Posted 11 February 2005

Quite the editorial, YOU calling for government regulation! Don't think I've ever read anything by you even half as cranky. But that's not why I'm writing. Rather, it's your implied endorsement of "frequent flyer programs." I've always wondered how the airlines get away with having them at all.

In any business, if the purchasing agent buys something with the company's money and accepts a valuable and personal reward for doing so, it's called "commercial bribery" and both the giver and recipient can be convicted of a criminal offense.

If you buy a plane ticket for company travel with company money, you, the "purchasing agent," get free and arguably valuable rewards. Instead of being called "commercial bribery," it's called a "frequent flyer program" and instead of going to jail you get to go to Philadelphia (or somewhere - you know what I mean). How did THAT ever get past the Forces for Good?

Richard Factor

To which Kohl replied:

Mr. Factor:

Like everyone else, I have my price. Meet it, and ethics go out the window. In my own mind, I rationalize company paid frequent flyer miles as recompense for having to spend numerous evenings at airports and days on the road, rather than being home or at the office. After a while, corporate travel ceases to be a perquisite and assumes more the character of tedium.

Incidentally, some part of my accumulated miles have come from private travel paid entirely out of my personal budget. I have never kept separate accounting for the two.

The larger question, however, is why do some rank-and-file people resent the fact that people travelling on business get to keep their frequent flyer miles? Or are you one of the oppressors of the working class? I've heard of some companies confiscating these miles, and my reaction to that is to ask how low CEOs can sink?

Ronald Khol

(Emphasis above supplied.)  Of course I stand by my comments, as Khol probably would by his own on further thought.  But look at his reply!  (And consider Randy Cohen's, who also didn't seem to understand why I equate frequent flyer programs with commercial bribery.)  "Ethics go out the window!"  He also inquires if I am one of the oppressors of the working class!  (The answer, sadly, is "No."  I have little oppression opportunity, and would wield it gently if I had.)   But the evil airline scum (that's a softkey in my word processor) are still committing acts that seem to be illegal by my definition of bribery as succinctly stated in my letter.

I continued my email correspondence with Khol for a bit.  We are both general aviation pilots and had a bit of a babble about that.  One thing I neglected to ask and he didn't volunteer:  How does a company manage to "confiscate" frequent flier miles?  Any good ideas?

2006
Richard Factor