How One Man Made a Business out of Airline Upgrades

Eithad First Class Airline

Alexander Dale meets a Sydney entrepreneur who helps turn rewards points into business class seats

How many times have you tried to book a business class seat with frequent flyer points but given up in utter frustration? Do you even redeem rewards points on your credit cards, or are they largely unused from year to year?

If your answers to these questions are ‘many’, ‘no’ and ‘often’, you’re likely missing out on one of the great joys of modern air travel: turning left as you board the aircraft instead of right.

Trying to convert frequent flyer points into premium class airline seats is like searching for a needle in a haystack – a complex and time-consuming exercise leaving many individuals and companies giving up after weeks of online searches and fruitless phone calls. There has to be an easier way.

Steve Hui, CEO and founder of iFLYflat, is an enterprising Sydney-based company advising small to medium-sized businesses and high-spending consumers on how to choose the right credit cards, earn the most rewards points, and use those points to maximum effect on premium class upgrades.

“We help people fly business class without the business class price tag,” he says.

“If you have rewards points and want to put them to work, we’ll help you travel much more comfortably for much less money.”

This high-flying entrepreneur – known in travel industry circles as ‘The Points Whisperer’ – hit upon his bright idea about 10 years ago when he was working as an accountant at Macquarie Bank.

“I’d never flown Business Class until the bank sent me on a project to India,” he says. “I flew Business on one of Singapore Airlines’ first A380s and thought, wow, this is a whole new world of travel.”

Hui’s accounting brain kicked in, and after amassing frequent flyer points of his own and canvassing colleagues – who told him they rarely bothered with rewards points because it was too hard or complicated to redeem them – he soon realised there was a business opportunity.

He started approaching the owners of small to medium-size businesses who were spending large amounts of money but not capitalising on the rewards points they were – or could be – collecting.

“The feedback I got was they had points but didn’t think they had a value or they didn’t know how to use them,” says Hui. “The mechanism on how to use the points just wasn’t understood. There was a disconnect from the points and they couldn’t see the prize.”

Charging a nominal fee, Hui started converting his clients’ points into Business Class upgrades and his fledgling iFLYflat business took off.

Six years on, he employs 11 staff in Sydney, Brisbane and overseas, redeems around 10 million rewards points a month on Business Class bookings, and estimates redeeming over 350 million points to date, amounting to more than 3,850 seats.

He now works with companies with turnovers of between $1 million and $50 million, saving them between 30 and 70 per cent off the cost of their business class travels.

Any company or individual working with Hui needs to have frequent flyer points – and lots of them – as upgrades can swallow up between 190,000 and 260,000 points depending on how far you want to fly.

Hui charges a base rate of between $1500 and $2500 per seat booking – again depending on where and how far you fly – and then uses your points to get the best possible Business or First Class deal.

The cost is inclusive of airline fees, surcharges and airport taxes – and invoiced only after a successful booking is made – and is often a fraction the price of a standard Business or First Class ticket.

“If you don’t have the points, you can’t play the game,” says Hui, who also operates an advisory service helping clients choose the right credit cards, earn the most rewards points, and maximise those points on premium class upgrades.

“It’s a holistic approach, an end-to-end solution that helps you earn points and helps you spend them,” he says.

Hui isn’t advocating the use of credit cards for credit purposes, rather encouraging solvent companies and individuals to put as many work and lifestyle costs and expenses on their cards to maximise the return in rewards points.

“Once you realise those points have a significant value and you use them in a strategic way, you can save thousands of dollars in air travel and fly in comfort and style,” he says.

Hui insists he isn’t a travel agent or points broker and doesn’t get special priority from the major airlines he works with. “We don’t control the seats, the airlines do, but we have learned to be really good at finding and booking those seats,” he says.

“We’re completely independent and impartial, and don’t favour one airline over another. We just use our knowledge of a complicated booking system to get our clients the best possible deals.”

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