Frequent Flier Program Changes You Can Root For
Christopher Elliott, The Travel Troubleshooter
If you've ever asked what the fuss over frequent-flier programs is about, then you know that the answer can be complicated.
Airlines love them because they're worth billions of dollars in business. They also mean the world to many passengers, because at a time when airline amenities are evaporating faster than jet fuel spilled on a hot tarmac, perks such as upgrades and preferential treatment are just about the only things that make air travel tolerable.
So when two major airlines recently decided to upgrade their loyalty programs, they caught this skeptic's attention.
The response from customers offers fresh insights into the volatile relationship between air travelers and airlines, but it also presents us with new opportunities to fly smarter.
"The reaction to Delta's move is best characterized as polite applause," says
Reaction to Southwest's new program, on the other hand, has been "decidedly mixed," he says, and has engendered both winners and losers. The old Rapid Rewards program offered flight credit based on every one-way flight as opposed to the length of the flight or the price of the ticket, and unused credits expired after 24 months. The losers under the new scheme -- frequent customers who fly on shorter routes and pay less for their tickets -- are incensed that they will be earning fewer free trips in the future.
"I think Southwest should be commended for honoring their guests' old credits in the new program," she says, "because I for one would be pretty upset if I'd earned all these points and they just went away."
I asked Southwest's senior director of marketing,
He bristled at charges that Southwest was becoming just like every other carrier, pointing out several key features that distinguish the airline's program. Among them: no blackout dates, no fees to redeem points for tickets or change reservations and no arbitrary threshold for redeeming seats.
You might think that Delta's decision to eliminate mileage expirations would be less controversial. But that's not entirely true. Frequent fliers like
Why did Delta change its program, particularly when airlines are known to have billions of unredeemed miles in the wild? I asked
"After discussions with our customers through surveys and focus groups, it was apparent that they view their miles as a form of currency," he says. "The breakage of these miles was of minimal gain to Delta, but eliminating expiration was a big win for customers."
In other words, Delta is hoping that its no-expiration rule will set it apart from the competition and drive more customers -- and more dollars -- its way. Obviously, neither Delta nor Southwest are being charitable with their changes. Maybe some customers like the new rules, but at the end of the day, the airlines are making the changes because they'll make more money.
There's nothing wrong with that, of course. But unexpected program changes like this give you an occasion to question your loyalty. Have you read your program member agreement lately? Do you realize that your airline can change the terms of its agreement anytime, for any reason, with no required notification? Did you know that under most program rules, your mileage and your elite status technically don't even belong to you and can be revoked at any time?
That's right: Your airline could one day decide to end its loyalty program, and you wouldn't be able to do a thing about it. Scratch the surface of these recent changes, and it's clear that they haven't really been made because airlines want to reward you for your loyalty. They've been made because they want to be rewarded with your loyalty.
Maybe I'm just being a contrarian, but the way I see it, we're really fortunate. I actually like the program changes to both Rapid Rewards and SkyMiles.
We may not be so lucky next time.
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(c) 2011 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
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