Airline Loyalty Programs Don’t Make Sense Anymore

Joe Sharkey over at the New York Times has some valuable advice for frequent flyers: don’t bother.

For most customers, loyalty to any particular airline is a losing proposition. He points that numerous attempts by airlines to try to increase their revenue are often at the expense of their most loyal customers. For example, a consequence of Delta simplifying its pricing structure was that business seats became easier and cheaper to get for the average customer. But this was at the expense of frequent flyers, who found free upgrades to business class to be much harder to get.

Price discounts for frequent flyers and those who belong to loyalty programs are also on the decline: the price between buying a ticket online and what someone who belongs to a loyalty program pays is becoming inconsequential.

On one hand, this is all good news for people who don’t fly often: the playing field is being leveled and average customers are getting better deals because of it. But we’re capitalist enough to believe that customers who have spent large amounts of money should get preferential treatment and decided perks. Companies should recognize customer loyalty — loyal customers indicate that you’re doing something right. It’s a point of pride.

Give the average Joe a pleasant flight, but don’t degrade your loyalty programs so much that the advantages of customer loyalty aren’t obvious… you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you do that. Perhaps, in this one instance, airlines should take their lead from Animal Farm: “All Animals Are Equal… But Some Are More Equal Than Others.” Just don’t openly refer to your customers as “animals,” please.

Still Loyal to Your Airline? You Must Be Looney Tunes [New York Times]

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  1. Anabelle says:

    Maybe I’m missing something (cue my kids: “Um, DUH, Mom”), but … as a very infrequent flyer, I don’t really understand the entitlement aspect of being a frequent flyer. I’m a frequent grocery buyer, but I don’t get offered free upgrades from, say, ground chuck to filet mignon, even though I shop weekly at the same supermarket. Ditto for anything else I buy, unless you count the occasional product coupon that comes in my mail from CVS. Isn’t it a better business strategy to make airline flight more accessible for more people than to give away free flights and/or upgrades to people who happen to travel a lot? Enlighten me, Consumerists.

  2. CTSLICK says:

    First off, its never been that easy to use frequent flyer benefits what with all the black out dates, stipulations and caveats. Second, the economic benefits for an airline to run frequent flyer programs have been dwindling for quite years. And don’t blame 9/11. Airlines and their frequent flyer programs were collapsing under their own weight long before that. The huge overhead associated with a frequent flyer program in the hopes of retaining the lucrative business traveler is too great in today’s market. The once trusted business traveler-centric models are just old and busted now. Travelers, whether business or pleasure, are not brand-driven loyalists any more, they are first and foremost price driven mercenaries. Frequent flyer programs cannot replace quality customer care any more. I say good riddance to frequent flyer programs, put the money into making flying a better experience and you will have more business than you know what to do with.

  3. OkiMike says:

    I had just such a conversation with a frequent flier friend recently. His belief was that it was better to stick with an airline and pay more for each flight because of the comforts it provides. In the end, he believes his “free” tickets or upgrades are just that.

    I argued that if he sought out the cheapest flights each time, regardless of vendor, then in the long haul, he would be able to buy many more “free” flights with the same amount of cash.