On the whole I have personally liked how complicated frequent flyer programs are.
- The more complicated they are, the greater the opportunities for identifying unintended value opportunity and the greater opportunities for arbitrage.
- They’ve allowed the creation of businesses like this one to help guide folks through the morass.
Programs are so complicated the the people running them don’t understand them. Pre-interviewing an executive from a major frequent flyer program for a panel I moderated last year, the individual shared that they’re in meetings frequently talking about how to build something or change something and everyone in the room will come to a stopping place and someone will have to take an action item to look up how a feature of the program actually works, what the rules are. The group in the room, managing the program, doesn’t actually know or understand.
But when Delta creates three different metrics — qualifying miles, qualifying dollars, and redeemable miles — that accrue to a single flight, and five award redemption tiers just for coach, things are getting increasingly complex.
I’ve written in the past “How Do Normal People Ever Manage to Navigate Airline Bureaucracies.” In many ways I do this for a living and the number of roadblocks and airline mistakes I run into on a daily basis are mindboggling. It’s the combination of a surreal degree of complexity meeting technological ineptitude.
One simple example of this is how United award tickets for travel on partner airlines have a history of not ticketing and re-ticketing properly. And then you have to hang up, call back until you find someone willing to help with a make-good, usually opening up space on an airline’s own flights to complete travel that the airline fouled up in the first place.
While revenue-based frequent flyer programs were once touted as consumer-friendly due to their ‘simplicity’, United — which goes revenue based for earning in just over a month — has sprawling, complicated new and different charts for points-earning on each of their partners. Lucky reproduces the dizzying charts.
Years ago I managed to credit Cyprus Airways flights to Delta Skymiles, even though Cyprus wasn’t a Delta partner, because the flights were codeshares with Skyteam-member Alitalia. Skyteam has historically gone more by flight code than operating carrier, which used to strike me strange.
Yet a couple of recent Delta mileage-crediting questions really stuck with me in terms of underscoring just how in the world are consumers supposed to know what to do?
- Passenger purchased premium economy tickets from Air France, that included a segment operated by Saudia (which doesn’t have premium economy), in late 2014. Delta’s twitter team assured that the Air France-coded Saudia segments would earn SkyMiles. Delta refused to credit those miles, explaining that Saudia flights didn’t earn miles with Delta until 2015. Of course there was a Saudia earning chart last year, but it was no longer on the Delta website (replaced by the new 2015 chart). The old Air France chart, it turns out, excluded Air France codeshares on Saudia from earning Skymiles. Should the passenger have known this?
- Passenger has tickets on Delta and Virgin Australia, with the Virgin Australia flights carrying a Delta code. They don’t want to credit the miles to Delta. Which Virgin Australia partners can they credit miles to? Or Which Delta partners? Not Alaska, not Singapore, not Korean.. and Virgin Australia itself has residency requirements for joining the program which the passenger doesn’t meet.
In the former case, Delta ultimately gave the miles as a goodwill gesture.
In the latter I advised that since they’re in business class anyway they should pull the frequent flyer numbers out of the reservation and obtain clean boarding passes — which they should save. That way they can submit those boarding passes for retro credit with one airline after another until they do get credit, because of course published mileage-earning exclusions do not mean that mileage credit won’t be provided in practice!