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The Critical Points: Columnist calls to end airline loyalty programs. He's wrong.

Sept. 27, 2019
9 min read
The Critical Points: Columnist calls to end airline loyalty programs. He's wrong.
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Each week in his column "The Critical Points," TPG Loyalty and Engagement Editor Richard Kerr presents his opinion on a loyalty program, card product or recent news that he believes is overlooked, unsung or the result of groupthink taking mass opinion in a direction with which he doesn't agree. His goal is not necessarily to convince you to agree with his position but rather to induce critical thought for each of the topics and positions he covers.

Consumer advocate and syndicated columnist Chris Elliott wrote an article yesterday entitled "Frequent Flyer programs have become increasingly elitist. Is it time to end them?". Throughout the piece, Mr. Elliott relies on false representations of airline loyalty programs and the asserted maltreatment of non-elite travelers to call for the end of airline loyalty programs. The piece culminates in stomach-churning advice for frequent flyers — advice you simply should not put any stock into.

Let's look at why Mr. Elliott couldn't be more wrong.

"Because the best frequent flyer program might be none at all — at least when it comes to air travel"

Frequent flyer programs are free to sign up for and utilize. If you pay for an airplane ticket, the miles are included at no extra charge. If you don't collect miles when you fly, you are leaving value on the table. Even if you fly once or twice a year, you can top up your balances with points or miles from many other sources, meaning you're that much closer to your next award ticket. Why would you not utilize a free program?

This is especially important for select programs with currencies that never expire — like Delta SkyMiles, JetBlue TrueBlue and (most recently) United MileagePlus. Sure, it may take longer for you to earn a free flight than a road warrior getting on planes every week, but with no expiration date, there's simply no reason to shun these programs in particular.

"These schemes have deepened the divide between the "haves" and "have-nots": people without status who receive the worst service and pay outrageous fees."

Ignoring the misuse of the term scheme — because all program rules and the way they work are clearly explained in lengthy terms and conditions — this assertion is exactly why loyalty programs should exist. Despite industry consolidation, flyers required to be on the road have plenty of choices to fly, and a frequent flyer program can be the number one marketing tool an airline has for repeat customers. If an airline wants my repeat business, they should be doing things to make my travel life easier. It seems rather fair to me that someone who has spent $20,000 with an airline would have additional benefits and perks compared to someone who has flown them once.

Remember too that many elite-like perks are available with a single airline credit card. If you're a hub captive who take the occasional flight on the major carrier in town, you can avoid (or minimize) expenses like checked baggage fees, gain access to priority boarding and even enjoy inflight discounts.

Which also speaks to the next point ...

"Today, non-elite passengers are outcasts. Hit with nuisance fees, squeezed into tiny seats, served by disgruntled flight attendants, they are treated worse than cargo. No wonder airline customer satisfaction scores are circling the drain."

After hundreds of flights as both a high-tier elite flyer and a non-elite peon, I still can't look around a cabin after a flight and tell you which passengers have no status because of how poorly they were treated. There is no section of the airplane with bigger seats roped off for elite status holders. I can assure you there is no inflight discrimination based on your level of status with a loyalty program. The only time there's even a hint of this segmentation is during the boarding process.

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What's the real cause of airline customer satisfaction scores dropping? The pursuit of profits at the expense of comfort and unbundling of services.

"Tariq Nasir, an independent film producer in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is an American Airlines Platinum Concierge Key member."

Mr Elliott, there is no such level. There is Gold, Platinum, Platinum Pro, Executive Platinum and Concierge Key.

"Airlines want you to believe they treat all of their loyalty program members like Nasir."

This simply isn't the case. Every airline loyalty program provides overwhelming transparency of published benefits, many with easy-to-read charts based on your status. You can look at any airline program and your status right now and see every, single benefit you will (and will not) receive. If you think you're going to be treated like a VIP, just look up the chart.

"Between the promise of 'free flights', misleading benefits, he considers it a poor investment of his time and money and believes his years of loyalty were all for nothing."

This really gets to the heart of why TPG even exists. Teaching you how to maximize your travel and increase your return on spending can be complicated and time consuming. That being said, I also see the hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel I've earned over the last seven years as a very valuable and rewarding use of my time and efforts. I also can't remember too many instances of misleading benefits that made me feel like all of this was for nothing.

I summarize the level of effort required at every family gathering and in every Facebook message I get, asking how a family member or reader can travel like I do. I always say, "I can lead you in the right direction, but I can't make you go down the path. It takes time and effort." If you don't want to expend that effort to earn free travel, I don't hold that against you, but I also can't help you enjoy the same level of travel if that's the case.

Questionable advice to ignore

Paying your taxes with checks or direct transfer is basically like using cash. Use a credit card instead to make money by paying your taxes. (Photo by Neonbrand / Unsplash)
Cash-back may make sense for some, but it's not a one-size-fits-all strategy. (Photo by Neonbrand / Unsplash)

The column ends with three pieces of advice. Two might be partially true (but probably aren't), and the third should be cast out of every travel website, book, article and online forum past and present.

  1. Find a program that plays fewer games with you — Delta and Southwest are given as examples of this, and while I enjoy Delta, I'm not sure there is a program that has (historically) played more games than SkyMiles. Also, the more straightforward a program is, the less chance you have of enjoying out-sized value for your rewards. So if you want to fly domestically with a ceiling to the value of every redemption, Southwest is a great choice for you. If you want premium-class flights over oceans, you better utilize as many different loyalty programs as possible.
  2. A cash-back card gives you more flexibility than frequent flyer miles — This is true in that you can use cash for a greater variety of items than airline miles. However, you once again have no chance of out-sized value with a cash-back card. Instead, earn transferable points and never look back — that is the best kind of rewards card to use.
  3. Use your loyalty as leverage — The passenger for this advice is quoted as saying "demand they take care of you", "play hardball" and "threaten to leave". If you want to make sure you become an actual outcast or have-not, these are the exact words to use during your next customer service experience. Now, if you decide that another airline is deserving of your loyalty and you utilize a status match to jump ship, that's one thing. Demanding a certain level of treatment by "playing hardball" is not the way to go. This attitude will get you nowhere and — for the sake of humanity — should be avoided at all costs.

Bottom line

An entire aspect not mentioned in the column is the amount of money airline loyalty programs make and what the repercussions would be on the airlines and passengers if these cash cows were to not exist. American AAdvantage is valued at more than the airline itself, and if it no longer existed, how much would ticket fares have to be raised to cover the tremendous loss? There would be nothing but negative affects on passengers if these programs were to go by the wayside.

There is one argument on which I agree with the columnist: Loyalty isn't for everyone. I've argued for years that many flyers should remain free agents and not blindly give a single airline all their business. However, they should utilize as many loyalty programs as possible and earn points and miles in any way they can — be it from flying, shopping, dining or using credit cards. Airline frequent flyer programs will yield tremendous value to the traveler willing to spend the time and energy to learn how to maximize them — and I'm glad they exist.

Featured image by Alberto Riva