Anyone who believes airlines don’t give away any free tickets is, to put it plainly, wrong. Last year the industry gave away more than 20 million free tickets — and that doesn’t include the millions of redeemed upgrade awards (and I’m not talking about complimentary upgrades for elite members, I’m talking about upgrade awards that require mileage deductions).
That’s an impressive number of “freebies.’ Still, we are constantly reminded that a growing number of members stridently believe the airlines are cutting back on the number of seats available for award redemption.
Last month I called for these same programs to stop, take a look around and do something to address this issue. Whether my advice is heeded is certainly up for debate. But I have heard from several industry members who are at least perking their ears up because they know my ears are attuned to their members, and this magazine’s track record for sensing trends is quite accurate.
So, as my staff members and I congregated to plan this issue, we reviewed what we had done in the recent past and, as always, tried to aim higher. These meetings can be hilarious, sometimes contentious, but they are always positive and productive. The debates continue until we settle on a working cover story. The result, after many steps forward, and inevitably a few back, is the issue you are now holding.
The questions we asked ourselves in this particular meeting were many. What more can we write about concerning the issue of award availability? Do we add to the furor and find a few members who swear they are never able to use their miles, as other publications have done — over and over? Or, do we move on to other topics, such as the next generation of frequent flyer programs being introduced by the low cost airlines?
To that end we feature 60 Seconds with Jennifer Katz, whose agency convinced Sun Country Airlines to introduce an unusual, but quite valuable, reward program, called VIP Club.
But, in the end, we just couldn’t get off the topic of award redemption. As a group, we decided we’d do what no other program or publication seems to have the time or the inclination to do; we would physically make calls and try to book awards between some of the more popular city pairs, plotting our successes and failures along the way.
Gee, that’s a novel idea. I wasn’t sure what we’d find, but I knew it surely would be risky since it included summer, as well as shoulder season, and holiday travel. I was also interested to see if, in our research, there were patterns to be identified.
So, allow me to introduce, for your reading pleasure, the results of actual research on the topic of award redemption. Now you have a baseline against which to compare your own experiences.
The one thing I just couldn’t shake from my memory as we were chatting about this issue in the planning meeting was an incident on FlyerTalk.
A reporter posted looking for interviews with frequent flyers who couldn’t use their miles. The reporter was quickly called out by members for “writing the ending” before conducting any research (FlyerTalk has its moments and this was one of them). The thread then had a few dozen posts from a variety of members who were quite proud to state that they had never had a problem claiming an award. It wasn’t until well into the thread that a member finally spoke up to say that they had had a problem claiming an award.
The point being, I’ve personally never seen a story written on this topic that didn’t start with some anti-airline bias. While I don’t necessarily agree with that assumption, I do care enough for the welfare of the members to strongly suggest the airlines do something between now and the end of the year directly related to this perception/reality problem.
This shadow does no one any good.
And finally, I’d like to apologize to our readers for our recent coverage, or lack thereof, of the Delta SkyMiles program. For at least the last nine months, Delta has not been nearly as cooperative with us as in years past. While I suspect the reason, it’s absolutely a childish thing for them to do, especially since many of the things they’ve done lately are absolutely great. I thought that the SkyMiles pre-paid card, which they are selling at grocery stores, was one of the cleverest and most unique things I’ve seen. And I really liked their recent decision to personalize the benefits of the Medallion members next year. In fact, back in April of this year I gave a special Freddie Award to Air Canada for pioneering such a benefit and called upon all programs to follow that lead.
The problem is that Delta no longer gives us any timely information and once we get it after deadline, we’re in a position to write about it 45 days later when it really isn’t newsworthy any longer.
So Delta, considering the situation you are in, do you really think it is all that smart to play little children’s games of “I don’t like you anymore?” In 18 years, I haven’t had to make this kind of comment before, but you know what, I think the program has some great things going for it and I hate to see their members left in the dark. Give us the news in a timely manner for our deadlines.
Consider this frequent flyer program tough love.