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.
Delta Air Lines has eliminated the expirations on its frequent-flier miles. And Southwest Airlines has completely revamped its legendary Rapid Rewards, adopting many of the features of competing incentive programs.
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 Tim Winship, publisher of Frequentflier.com, who described the non-expiring miles as only a “modest plus” for elite-level frequent fliers and a boon to infrequent customers, who were most at risk of losing their miles.
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.
David Kazarian, a frequent Southwest customer based in St. Petersburg, Fla., has a laundry list of grievances about Southwest’s new program, including new limits on mileage redemption, changes to the way mileage is earned, and accompanying service reductions. “I thank them for making me realize that there are other airlines out there on which I can travel,” he says. “It won’t be long before we’ll be paying for bags and change fees on Southwest. After all, they’ve forgotten the reason they became great.”
Nicole Madril, who works for an insurance company in Lawrence, Kan., sounds more upbeat about the Southwest changes. She likes the way the airline communicated its plans to customers and is happy that the airline has eliminated blackout dates for redeeming mileage credits. She’s also pleased that her old credits were transferred to the new program.
“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, Ryan Green, who oversees Rapid Rewards, about the issues. He acknowledged some glitches in implementing the new program but said that overhauling the rewards system would make it fairer, more competitive and more profitable.