Why Does Air Canada Have Three Different Loyalty Programs?

Jun 26, 2017

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“Reader Questions” are answered three days a week — Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays — by TPG Senior Writer Julian Mark Kheel.

Does Air Canada have multiple loyalty programs? That’s the question TPG reader Wendell posed in a recent email message…

I notice that Air Canada has Aeroplan as well as Altitude. Do you know the difference between these programs?

TPG Reader Wendell

It’s confusing that Air Canada has two programs related to customer loyalty which both have names starting with the same letter. But to muddy things even further, there’s actually a third program that’s also tangentially related to Air Canada loyalty which used to be called “Distinction,” but now appears to have no real name at all. So let’s see if we can explain how all these programs work.

Aeroplan is the mileage program for Air Canada, but unlike most airline loyalty programs, Aeroplan is not actually owned by the airline. It was started by Air Canada in 1984 but spun off into its own entity in 2002, and is now run by a separate publicly traded company called Aimia (yes, another “A” name). However, that doesn’t change how it works — like any other frequent flyer program, you earn Aeroplan miles for flying and can redeem them for free flights, either on Air Canada or on any of its Star Alliance partners, which include United, Lufthansa, ANA and others.

Now, like many other airlines, Air Canada also offers customers the opportunity to earn elite status. But what’s a bit unusual in this case is that the airline has a separate name for its elite program, which it calls Altitude. Altitude also works like most other airline elite programs — there are five levels of elite status called Prestige 25K, Elite 35K, Elite 50K, Elite 75K and Super Elite 100K, and each escalating tier offers additional perks to frequent Air Canada travelers.

Air Canada’s elite status program, called Altitude, offers five tiers.

To get elite status in Altitude, you must earn Altitude Qualifying Miles (AQMs) or Altitude Qualifying Segments (AQSs) from flying on Air Canada or its partners, in addition to meeting a spend requirement on airline ticket purchases that’s tracked via an Altitude Qualifying Dollars (AQDs) metric. That system should sound very familiar since it’s pretty much identical to the elite status structure used by American, Delta and United.

This all sounds pretty straightforward so far, but here’s where it gets messy. Since Aeroplan is a separate company from Air Canada and has a large number of additional partners with whom you can earn and redeem Aeroplan miles, Aeroplan itself also has its own elite status program formerly known as Distinction but now apparently just called Aeroplan Status.

Aeroplan Status, which is different and separate from Air Canada’s elite program.

Aeroplan Status has three tiers of its own — Silver, Black and Diamond — which offer benefits specific to Aeroplan but not to Air Canada. In other words, if you’re interested in discounted change or redeposit fees on award tickets, that’s a benefit that comes with Aeroplan Status (specifically the Diamond level). But if you’re looking for free checked bags or upgrades to premium cabins on paid Air Canada flights, that’s an Altitude status benefit.

And just to throw one more wrench into the works, last month Air Canada announced its intention to leave Aeroplan and start its own brand new loyalty program, though the change won’t happen until the current contract between Air Canada and Aeroplan runs out in June 2020. While Aeroplan has a decent number of partners aside from Air Canada, the company reports that of the 2.5 million awards redeemed with Aeroplan miles last year, 1.9 million of them were for flights on Air Canada or Star Alliance airlines. So it would appear Aeroplan’s going to have a bit of a problem on its hands when 2020 rolls around.

Hopefully this cleared up some of the confusion, Wendell, and let’s just hope that when Air Canada starts its new program, it chooses a name for it that doesn’t start with the letter “A.” Thanks for the question, and if you’re a TPG reader who’d like us to answer a question of your own, tweet us at @thepointsguy, message us on Facebook or email us at info@thepointsguy.com.

Featured image courtesy of Air Canada.

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