India is the second most populous country in the world, after China’s 1.34 billion, at 1.21 billion people–that’s potentially a LOT of frequent flyers. Of that number, however, there are still relatively few people who fly. But as the nation continues to move toward a larger middle class, members of frequent flyer programs in the country can expect to see a vast influx of new members into the programs.
The country was late to the FFP game, but has made up for it by offering fully fledged frequent flyer programs. In this article, we will take a look at the three main frequent flyer programs of India: Air India Flying Returns, Jet Airways JetPrivilege and Kingfisher Airlines King Club. We will also take a look at how these airlines fit into the global airline alliances as well as taking a look at a new FFP in India. We will also hear from blogger AJ from the Live From A Lounge blog featured on BoardingArea.com. He is a resident of India and his blog focuses on travel in India, Asia and Europe.
As India’s economy bloomed and increasing numbers of people were able to enter the ranks of the middle class, more and more people were able to take to the skies. The year 2006 alone saw a passenger growth of 47 percent over the previous year. Before the early 2000s, flying was restricted to the rich and corporate travelers, but with new airlines entering the market along with higher paychecks, the demographics of the traveling public changed. Now, there are middle class leisure travelers as well as swelling numbers of business travelers.
One of the biggest hurdles FFPs in India have faced is consumer awareness. In the U.S., consumers have been living with frequent flyer programs for over 30 years, but in India, the concept was first introduced in 1997 when Air India launched Flying Returns. The fledgling frequent flyers had to be tutored about the benefits of frequent flyer program membership. Another challenge the FFPs face is the preference of Indian consumers to talk to a real person instead of going through a website or through email–this means that the programs have to put a lot of money into maintaining call centers. You’ll read below about one airline, however, that is trying a new approach by offering an online only frequent flyer program.
Low credit card usage in the country has limited the revenue the programs earn from the sale of their miles–something that has saved some airlines in the U.S.
And although the frequent flyer programs of India have been flying high, the financial health of the airlines of India has been hit rather hard in the last few years. And to follow the ups and downs of the airline industry in India is a bit like following your favorite Indian soap opera.
Air India is the flag carrier of the country and is partly owned by the government of India. It is the fourth largest airline behind Jet Airways, Kingfisher and IndiGo. (IndiGo is a low-cost carrier that does not offer a frequent flyer program.) The airline officially merged with Indian Airlines in February 2011. Indian Airlines launched in 1953 and Air India has even older roots that date back to 1932. Air India has been going through a rough patch the last few years with declining revenue and in July 2011, Air India’s invitation to join the Star Alliance was suspended due to its failure to meet the minimum standards for alliance membership that were agreed upon in December 2007. Talks, however, are said to be continuing so the airline could still be welcomed as a member of the Star Alliance; when that membership might come about exactly has not been announced. Air India serves 130 domestic and international destinations. With the current financial turbulence, the future of the carrier is uncertain.
Flying Returns was launched June 1, 1997 for residents of India at least 12 years of age who purchase their tickets in India for flights on Air India and Indian Airlines. It was the first frequent flyer program in India. Today, anyone from anywhere in the world can join the program as long as they are at least 12 years old.
Compared to the other two programs we are featuring in this article, Air India has a thin partner list–another reason why the Star Alliance membership would benefit members of the program.
Jet Airways commenced commercial flight operations on May 5, 1993 and the airline began international operations in March 2004 when it launched flights from Chennai to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Today, the airline serves 52 domestic destinations and 24 international destinations across southern Africa, Asia, the Gulf, Europe and North America. The airline has 13 international codeshare partners providing a choice of over 70 international destinations across the globe.
JetPrivilege was introduced in 1994 and was relaunched in 1999, 2004 and 2009. The program does not share its membership numbers.
And although it is not official, it’s possible that Jet Airways will join the Star Alliance. The carrier has partnerships with several Star Alliance members including ANA, bmi, Lufthansa, SAA, SWISS, Turkish Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways. But joining the Star Alliance is not a done deal. The airline also has partnerships with Alitalia, Air France, Delta and KLM of the SkyTeam alliance and India’s aviation ministry does not want two major airlines in the same alliance, which would mean, if Air India becomes a member of the Star Alliance, Jet Airways may be directed toward membership in SkyTeam. However, Jet Airways chairman Narish Goyal had this to say in January 2011, “But we are not in a hurry [to join an alliance]. Emirates has not joined any alliance has it?”
It will be interesting to see how the alliance card plays out with Jet Airways because it currently has an impressive airline partner list that could go through some major changes if they choose to join a global alliance. The program does not disclose any information about partnerships in the works, but when asked about what members can expect in 2012, Kaushal Satam, Head — JetPrivilege said members can expect, “… more program partners which means more opportunities for JetPrivileges members to earn JPMiles.” The program recently announced new partnerships with retail partners Vera Moda, Helios, BuyThePrice.com and The Bombay Store as well as new dining partners Chokola, Manchester United Restaurant & Cafe Bar and Rajdhani.
The program features a unique Dynamic Tier Review that offers a six-month fast track membership upgrade so that members do not have to wait the standard 12 months before enjoying the benefits of elite status.
Kingfisher Airlines was established in 2003 and launched its first flights in May 2005 with the backing of billionaire owner Vijay Mallya whose family owns the United Breweries Group that produces Kingfisher beer. It’s one of the few airlines awarded a five-star rating by Skytrax.
Kingfisher King Club was introduced in 2006 and quickly found members looking for that “Kingfisher Experience” the program offers.
The program currently boasts over two million members. Anshu Sarin, Vice President of Kingfisher Airlines Guest Loyalty, sums up what the program offers that the competitors do not, “Our rather simple and highly rewarding accrual and redemption process along with multiple alliances and three co-branded credit cards in the market, ensure that each mile counts.” She also points out that Platinum members enjoy a 35 percent tier bonus, five upgrade vouchers, unlimited lounge access for the member and two lounge access vouchers to give to others as well as the ability to give a complimentary King Gold membership for a companion. As well, Kingfisher is family friendly with the ability for members to pool their miles into a single account.
Just like many airlines in today’s economy, Kingfisher has been facing financial challenges. Kingfisher has suspended some flights but currently serves 63 domestic destinations and eight international destinations across Asia and Europe from its hubs in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. At one point, the airline was set to fly to the U.S. but those plans were scrapped. Sarin commented, “The Indian aviation industry is experiencing a rather trying phase, perhaps one of the most difficult phases in recent history. All of us at Kingfisher Airlines are humbled by the overwhelming faith exhibited in us by our loyal members.”
The airline has been in the process of becoming a oneworld member as of July 2010 and was expected to become a full member of the alliance on Feb. 10, 2012, but on Feb. 3, just days before the big event, oneworld made the announcement that the full membership had been put on hold, “… to give [Kingfisher] time to strengthen its financial position.” CEO of oneworld, Bruce Ashby, said, “These are turbulent times for the airline industry in India and many other parts of the world. We have been working closely with Kingfisher Airlines over the past months and it has become increasingly clear recently that the airline needs more time to resolve the financial issues it is confronting before it can be welcomed into oneworld. We wish it well during this process and will work with Kingfisher Airlines with the aim of setting a new joining date once it is through this current period of turbulence.”
The newest kid on the FFP block in India is low-cost carrier GoAir’s Go Club. GoAir was established in 2004 with its first operations on Nov. 4, 2005 and is currently the smallest domestic airline by market share in India. The airline was launched with the objective of offering airline seats that are just a bit more expensive than train fares in India. And in true low-cost fashion, the airline does not offer complimentary meals, but you can purchase food onboard. The airline currently flies to 21 destinations on 256 daily flights.
GoAir recently introduced an online loyalty program for frequent flyers who book their tickets via the airline’s website. The program will reward points that members can redeem for GoAir ticket discounts, airport lounge access and partners such as Dominos Pizza, Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream, VLCC and Ferns & Petals. Members will also be offered GoBusiness upgrades.
FFPs in India
Review from AJ
of Live From A Lounge
Indian frequent flyer programs are not yet as generous as their western counterparts, where miles replace currency for frequent travelers. However, in India, mileage-earning opportunities exist for domestic as well as international flying with all the carriers. Let’s have a look at the programs to find out which one shines and which one whines.
Overview: Probably the most well operated Indian carrier so far, Jet Airways JetPrivilege program lets members earn status miles and points on your travels on Jet Airways and its low-fare associate brands Jet Konnect and JetLite. The program has partnerships with about 25 mileage partners that allow members to earn and burn miles on Jet Airways flights.
The Good: Jet Airways brought the daily tier review to India, which means the earning of status is not aligned to a calendar year but for 13 months after achieving the requirements. Recently, they introduced two new time windows, which means JetPrivilege takes into account the past 12, 18 and 24 months travel history to grant status. All international travel outside India earns 100 percent miles plus elite bonuses and class of service bonuses. Jet also has perhaps the biggest set of partner airlines to work with from the U.S. and Europe, across Star Alliance, oneworld and SkyTeam, but these do not earn status miles. Also, there is a huge list of non-travel partners where you can earn JP Miles.
The Bad: If you like qualifying for status on status points, there’s bad news. Jet Airways grants a fixed number of Tier Points across the board, irrespective of distances flown. For instance, a Mumbai Delhi or Mumbai Brussels flight in economy both earn one Tier Point. Premium cabins in the Jet Airways international network are very good. The first class service with a close-door suite is one of the best globally. However, these seats are rarely open for award travelers on JP miles, or partner miles. Upgrades are also hard to come by on domestic or international segments due to the limited availability for use of upgrade instruments (vouchers/miles).
Overview: Once the most customer savvy airline in India, this one has sure gone down in service quality due to financial troubles and the recent hold up for oneworld membership is the latest bit of bad news for King Club members.
The Good: Assuming that Kingfisher will eventually become a full member of oneworld, it will mean you can use King Club miles on any carrier in the oneworld network and book on Kingfisher using your member airline miles with airlines such as American Airlines or British Airways. Kingfisher also has a Family Club that allows all members of the family to pool their miles into one account, like the household accounts offered by British Airways Executive Club. Award availability for domestic and international travel is much better than Jet Airways, even in the premium cabins. King Club Platinum members also get to gift a King Club Gold membership, and get a discount on companion redemptions (50 percent).
The Bad: Kingfisher Airlines route network internationally is very small in comparison to other Indian carriers. And while Kingfisher has invested in some good lounges in Delhi and Bangalore, the lounge network is sparse at other places. And members will now have to wait to enjoy the benefits of a global alliance membership.
Overview: Air India Flying Returns is perhaps the least attractive program in India and the most attractive at the same time. Most attractive because the best route network inside and out of India sits with this airline, and least attractive because there is no other way to earn or burn miles than their own network. Hopefully this will change if the airline eventually joins the Star Alliance.
The Good: Air India has a very generous availability of award seats across the board, and with a very low redemption value if you book early. For instance, you could book a Mumbai — London economy ticket for as few as 9,500 miles from Air India. Since there are no capacity controls, as long as there are seats on the plane, you could get redemption tickets. And as mentioned earlier, Air India has the best network outside of India.
The Bad: Air India does not have many partners to earn miles with. Only Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines tickets can earn you miles apart from Air India tickets. The other downside is the status benefits are not clearly defined and honored by the airline.
Each of the three programs has their positives and negatives. So choosing one becomes difficult. If you are a family traveler, Kingfisher is the one you should go for. For the frequent global traveler, Jet Airways will help you earn a lot of miles and spend them on partner airlines. Air India has the best availability but the trade-off is that everything earned is on flying the airline itself.
If your intention is to travel in India frequently, then it is best to sign up with Jet Airways JetPrivilege. For limited travel to India, almost all big international carriers will usually be associated with Jet Airways so you should credit your miles there for flying around India.
AJ publishes the Live From A Lounge blog on BoardingArea.com, which focuses on travel in India, Asia and Europe. You can read it on livefromalounge.com and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
|Program Features||Air India Flying Returns||Jet Airways Jet Privilege||Kingfisher King Club|
|Mileage expiration||Valid during year of accrual plus three additional whole calendar years||Valid for a little over three years, up to the end of the 13th quarter from the quarter in which they were earned||Miles expire 36 months from the month they were earned|
|Minimum miles||No minimum miles offered||No minimum miles offered||No minimum miles offered|
|Class of service accrual||25% to 250% of actual miles flown depending on class purchased||50% to 200% of actual miles flown depending on class purchased (25% to 70% on JetLite)||10% to 200% of actual miles flown depending on class purchased|
|Family program||Members can pool miles with spouse to redeem award tickets||No family program offered||Family Club: Pool miles within your family into one account|
|Elite program||Silver Edge Club ( 25,000 status miles in a year)||Silver (22,500 miles in six months, 30,000 in 12)||Silver (60 sector points or 30,000 status miles in a year)|
|Golden Edge Club (50,000 status miles in a year)||Gold (45,000 miles in six months, 60,000 in 12)||Gold (120 sector points or 60,000 status miles in a year and 84 sector points in preceding 6 months)|
|Maharajah Club (75,000 status miles in a year)||Platinum (67,500 miles in six months, 90,000 in 12)||Platinum (180 sector points or 90,000 status miles in a year and126 sector points in preceding 6 months)|
|Global alliance||Star Alliance membership suspended July 2011||Not official, but there are rumors of a Star Alliance membership||oneworld membership postponed Feb. 2012|
|Airline partners||Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines||Air France, ANA, Alitalia, American, Austrian, bmi, Brussels, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Dragonair, Emirates, Etihad, Gulf Air, JetLite, Kenya, KLM, Lufthansa, Malaysia, Qantas SAA, Swiss, Turkish, United, US Airways, Virgin Atlantic||Air France, American, Bangkok Airways, British Airways, Delta, Emirates, Finnair, KLM, Qatar Airways, S7|
|Hotel partners||ITC — Welcomgroup (transfer partner)||Accor, Carlson, Citrus, Fortune, GHA, Harbour Plaza, Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, ITC, Langham, Leela, Lemon Tree, Mahindra Homestays, Mandarin Oriental, Marriott, Meritus, Oberoi, Preferred, Sarovar, Swissotel, Shangri-La, Leading Hotels of the World, Park, Trident, WelcomHeritage, Worldhotels||Starwood, Marriott, Atlantis, Venetian Macao, Preferred, VOILA, Radisson Edwardian, Cinnamon, GHA, Meritus, Kingfisher, Jaypee, Citrus, Keys, Hilton, Oberoi, Leisure, Gordon House Suites, Alila Diwa, Leela, Ananda, Trident, Ista, ITC, Park, The Paul Hotels, WelcomHeritage, Royal Orchid, Club Mahindra, Neeleshwar Hermitage, Clarks Inn, Worldhotels|
|Credit Cards||American Express Co-branded Card||Citibank India||American Express Kingfisher First Credit Card, ICICI Bank Kingfisher Airlines MasterCard Credit Card|
|Car rental||No car rental partner||Avis, Hertz||Avis, Sixt, Car Club, EasyCabs, Carzonrent|
|Domestic flight award||Mumbai-Delhi: 9,500 miles in economy, 19,000 in business, 23,750 in first (one way)||Mumbai-Delhi: 10,500 miles in economy, 21,000 in business, 31,500 in first (one way)||Mumbai-Delhi: 7,700 miles in economy (Red), 11,000 in business, 22,000 in first (one way)|
|International flight awards||Mumbai-New York: 45,000 miles in economy, 90,000 in business, 112,500 in first (one way)||Mumbai-Newark: 47,000 in economy, 94,000 in business, 141,000 in first (one way)||No flights to the U.S.|
|Mumbai-London: 25,000 in economy, 50,000 in business, 62,500 in first (one way)||Mumbai-London: 27,000 in economy, 54,000 in business, 81,000 in first (one way)||Mumbai-London: 18,300 in economy (Red), 26,000 in business, 52,000 in first (one-way)|