My thoughts on airline loyalty programmes
Loyalty programmes is one of the topics closest to my heart as a marketer, but also, for obvious reasons, as a traveller. There are so many programmes to choose from – airlines and hotels, and I often get questions about my personal preferences.
I have been thinking about this post for a couple of weeks now, and in preparation, reached out to both my Twitter and Facebook contacts – I wanted to know if they had a preferred programme of either kind, why they chose one instead of another and was overwhelmed by the response. Loyalty matters – whether it is heartfelt (i.e. people being real brand advocates/ambassadors.. or terrorists) or just being very good at playing the points game.
These are, as usual, my personal opinions and I have not been influenced by any company to write this post.
I have to be honest – I am the *queen* of points, as my friends call me. But I am a great believer in quality vs quantity in pretty much everything in life. As we speak, I only hold 1 frequent flyer card and 1 frequent stayer (hotel) card in my wallet. Others are kept in drawers or God knows where. More than enough for me!
Today, we shall focus on airlines
We are conditioned by where we live and the airlines that serve our “home” airports. If you live in say, Paris, it is pretty probable that you will join the Air France programme and Sky Team. If you live in London or NYC, you have more choices. This is an obvious point and I believe that most people forget it.
I was a Star Alliance Silver cardholder for 8 years plus, via TAP Portugal. The more I flew with other airlines within Star Alliance, the more frustrated I became. Using airmiles for free flights or upgrades with TAP wasn’t a huge problem, was actually OK, but being a stupidly frequent traveller (3-4 times per week, although on short routes), the one thing I valued was lounge access. The Lisbon lounge was OK and I was allowed to use it.. except if I had a ticket issued by another S.A. carrier. That drove me mad. Imagine flying to Istanbul, via Zurich, with Swiss and Turkish Airlines, with stopovers, and being told that I could not access the lounge, for an unknown/unexplained reason. Why should I bother flying with those Alliance members to be treated like this?
Another thing that frustrated was the fact that luggage policies were different from airline to airline, and I found myself arguing everytime I checked-in “my” extra 15kgs, which was a benefit of my card with TAP. At Heathrow, as all Star Alliance carriers are now together, the check-in staff wouldn’t know about it. I resorted to carry a print out of the website rules.
On the other hand, Mr. O had always been with British Airways Executive Club (I was blue as I only flew to London every now and then) – and by being silver, I started noticing that as his guest, I could always go into the lounge with him. I could also fast-track security. When we plotted our airline world domination, we agreed that I would keep status on Star Alliance and he would do so on OneWorld. We did the same for hotels.
It didn’t work out for us – I couldn’t take him into the lounge or fast track, or even board, whereas he could. OneWorld (BA) won hands down. Which means that being Silver in Star Alliance is shocking compared to being Silver (or Sapphire for my American friends, the equivalent of one level down below our top tier in Europe – for you, it must be bling bling and diamonds or double diamonds with platinum) on OneWorld.
How did I get out of Star Alliance? I started flying with BA via London every time we went to the US or even somewhere in Europe and was surprised that it was actually better value (and Gin & Tonic in any class, which Mrs. O loves). With our honeymoon ticket, I got to silver. It has been 4 years and never looked back. I am now been gold for the past 2 years, but I think I will go back to silver – sadly, but this isn’t a bad thing necessarily as I find BA extremely kind to the 2 upper tiers of the Executive Club. (Again, someone please tell me what being Star Alliance silver means, I don’t really know).
Does status matter?
For me, it does, as it translates in obvious benefits:
- Being able to book a seat when I buy my ticket (although the 5 first economy rows seem to be blocked until 4 days before the flight. I don’t get this and hate the extra work it gives me if I want my 5 A-C or any other single-digit seat numbers).
- Have an extra piece of luggage every time I fly, in addition to the cabin’s standard policy (this is worth a lot to me!). And no arguing at airports;
- Having lounge access on every One World Alliance lounge if I travel with a One World carrier (of course!). All OW carriers have a colour code which level all different member programmes. Meaning that if you are BA Silver, that is roughly the same as AA Platinum with diamonds encrusted. I am exagerating the names, but basically if you have a little Sapphire (Blue) or Emerald (Green) dot on your card, you are good to go. And no arguing at the lounge. Ever. And you can always bring a guest, which is a nice touch.
- Priority Check-in – I really like this, despite the class you travel.
- Fast-Track boarding and security -with a friend, of course, but mostly in UK airports only, sadly. I know airlines have to pay for this in other airports, but they should. If it’s fast track, has to be everywhere.
- More airmiles – which of course lead to more free flight or upgrade opportunities.
- Special paid upgrades through the BA “Manage my Booking” system or mobile app (this is a huge one, which I LOVE).
How you move from one tier to another depends on the airline. Star Alliance was based on actual miles travelled, whereas BA have the concept of Tier Points, whereby these are allocated depending on your fare, route and cabin. As a point of improvement, I would suggest that this (i.e. number of tier points and miles) is made clear before one books/pays for a ticket. Currently, you only find out afterwards. TAP Portugal and Swiss actually have a really good booking system whereby you have various fare options in both economy and business class and if you pay more, you get more points. Whether you choose to do it or not, it’s totally up to you, but it is very clear.
If you want to be BA Silver (where you need 600 tier points), you need 3 Europe to US Premium Economy trips (180 tier points each) plus a couple European flights (20 tier points for each economy return flight or 80 in club europe). That would have a cost of around €3000, give or take.
When I stopped using Star Alliance, they sent me a “goodwill” Silver card, valid for 2 years. I was surprised and thought it was nice and used it once or twice. On a particular flight, when I added by second piece of baggage (for those extra 15kg), I was told I wasn’t eligible as my card wasn’t really “real”. I was so offended, I vowed never to fly with them again unless I do not have an option. It has been 8 months and still counting.
One thing I haven’t mentioned is upgrades – I really don’t get the system. I rarely travel alone anymore, which certainly helps getting those seats, but every now and then we have a surprise. There is no sense of entitlement from my part whatsoever and that is fine. I recently found out that some American airlines (as in from the USA) hand out x upgrade vouchers each year to frequent flyers and, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind a bit of that (guaranteed) love.
I love playing the points game (I could expand this post and talk about Credit Cards…but maybe we could leave this for another opportunity), but I really enjoy flying with my airline of choice as I feel looked after, safe and love the little tweets they send me every now and then when I travel.
Let’s get this debate started. Favourite airline? Loyalty programme? What matters to you? Are you willing to pay a premium to fly with your preferred airline?
Let me know.
xo Mrs O