Five Times When Consumers Won Against Frequent Flyer Program Changes

Yesterday I wrote about frequent flyer programs rolling back unpopular changes they’ve made to their programs.

One reaction was that the example I gave was atypical. I focused on a 2008 announced change by American to begin charging a $5 fee to redeem miles online.

Here’s one comment,

That’s a valid point but this is just one example from 6 years ago. Pretty thin argument IMHO.

It seemed relevant to me, but as far as American’s changes go it was a change in the past made by American and contemporaneously with the last major change they made to their overall award pricing. But more importantly it was just an interesting case study in how a frequent flyer program can learn while still attempting to save face.

There are plenty more examples of where consumer outrage has led progrms to roll back unpopular changes. Here are five:

  • United required a Saturday stay on a roundtrip ticket in order to redeem a saver award. They rolled back the change amidst consumer backlash (while Northwest slipped in their own version of the change – which stuck for many years).

  • United made systemwide upgrades redeemable only on nearly full fare (H and above) tickets in 2003. There was enough of an uproar that they even issued additional sweet spot certificates valid on nearly any fare for the same year, and had less restrictive international upgrades the following year (that still excluded the cheapest fares). That policy remains in force today.

  • US Airways planned to count only full fare tickets towards elite status. The public face of the airline explaining this change is now the CEO of Spirit Airlines. At the time he described customers buying the inexpensive tickets they offered as not having the kind of loyalty they were interested in. Ironically Baldanza only wanted the highest fare passengers, and now he only wants the highest fee ones!

  • US Airways announced the end to flight bonuses for elite members in 2008 and reversed course. And they even did so retroactively. At the end of 2008 elites all received the flight bonuses they would have earned while the change was in place (May 1 – November 19).

  • In December 2002 Delta announced they would stop giving full elite credit to discount fares. Two years later they rolled back the change and also rolled back award fee increases.

To be clear, I don’t think American is going to roll back its own recent changes, but I do believe it is at least in their best interests to learn and do better both considering what changes to make and communicating those changes in advance. This is a billion dollar business on a standalone basis and they’re too smart to risk that golden goose.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Delta rolled back some of the same day confirmed changes last year. That’s a recent example.

    Harder to think of others. What is clear is that actual price increases on awards are almost never rolled back.

  2. @Greg – Delta did two SDC rollbacks. 1st class now can change as they did under old rules pre SDC ver 1.0 but coach is under the ver 2.0 of the changes.

  3. none of this matters if DL doesn’t roll back Skymiles2015.

    between their pitty mileage accrual, ancient planes that should belong in a museum, lack of 3-class F, and mostly worthless redemption partners, i’d say good riddance

  4. Oh, the era before the big 3 industry cartel kingpins ran the show. How I miss it.

  5. To me, though, your additional examples just further underscore the concern from that comment — it’s hard not to appreciate that those examples are all several years old (it’s hard to believe the Save Skymiles campaign was 10+ years ago!).

    I try to avoid hyperbole like this, but with only three legacy carriers remaining, I have trouble envisioning anything but a gradual “race to the bottom” — that consumer victories like the ones you list won’t be possible since it’s easier for the other two legacy carriers to simply match the unpopular change, because, why not?

  6. @Richard,

    I totally agree with your statements. For 30 years, airlines have done things in lockstep. New services, new charges, new policies, etc. For the millions of frequent flyers, I wish someone would do more of a protest. I remember the Bank of America atm card use fee proposal which was hugely unpopular. There were petitions and protests. BoA had to drop that $5 fee to use your atm card for purchases. If enough people made an issue about Delta’s changes, in the very least, Delta might get the message about not making such a drastic changes, in the future. Yeah, I know, wishful thinking.

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