Qantas is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its frequent flyer program with advertising promotions this week, but is it really that old?

In February last year its group general manager IT operations at Qantas Loyalty, David Reeve, told delegates at a global conference on frequent flyer schemes in Bangkok that it was 15-years-old.

We think he was telling the truth. Ansett introduced the first Australian frequent flyer program on 25 August, 1991, causing something of a kerfuffle in both Australian Airlines and a pre-merger Qantas.

Within weeks hastily cobbled answers to the Ansett scheme were launched by Australian Airlines and promised by Qantas and the embattled founder of Compass Airlines, Bryan Grey, was spending his dwindling dollars trying to make fun of the FFP that Sir Peter Abeles boasted would bury the first challenge to the big two to emerge after domestic deregulation in 1989.

Grey’s full page adds proclaimed, “do you want the bread or the toaster”, a reference to taking his cheaper fares, or Sir Peter’s promises of up to treble points.

By Christmas Compass was dead, but as the post mortems showed, it wasn’t killed by Ansett points promotions but the fact that by August 1991 Grey was down to $5 million in cash from shareholder funds of $65 million, and unpaid bills from the Federal Airports Corporation and aircraft lessors were starting to pile up.

Why is Qantas stretching the truth? Does it think it owns the history if it owns the brand? We await answers.

But there was indeed a Qantas loyalty scheme in 1987 called The Captain’s Club. If you were “in” or flew a lot at high fares, you could get a free drink in a lounge.

In 1996, when Qantas crushed Chandru International, a travel bag maker for using the words “frequent flyer” on its merchandise in a trade mark dispute, it filed a defence that it had “given out free bags embossed with the words frequent flyer as early as 1989″.

This is at least three years before it did frequent flyer points, so maybe it could claim its FFP is 18-years-old, but that doesn’t sound quite as legit as 20 years does it?

For those who are into trivial pursuit, or want to appear on The Einstein Factor with FFPs as their chosen speciality, history tells us that defunct US carrier, Western Airlines, launched the first FFP in 1980, based on a novel punch card system where you bundied on with your boarding pass, followed by the first computer based ‘modern’ FFP one year later in the venerable and these days somewhat unattractive American Airlines AAdvantage program.