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Do airline loyalty programmes work?
Arati Menon-Carroll | December 16, 2006
"Why do we never accumulate enough airmiles for free tickets anymore?" whined my mother before a trip out.
In the days before a canny entrepreneur and his trusting financiers democratised air travel in India, one would be clocking up benefits on one's favourite airline (one out of two) and funding six monthly departures to Goa.
Today, even dates for travel are determined by the availability of discount fares. Every now and then, a colleague will announce "Hey guys, XYZ airline just announced a 99-rupee ticket to Delhi if you travel between 20:00-20:30 on January 19, 2008," and someone's off in a flash to get to that ticket, reason for travel be damned.
It's a consumer market and the volumes today are driven by the brand-don't cares. And you're left wondering� do loyalty programmes work or not? And if they do, is loyalty earned or bought? Either way, airlines are falling all over themselves trying to innovate ways to woo frequent flyers.
Today, air miles can be cashed in for not only airplane tickets but a host of other awards, including hotel breaks and limo rentals and in some cases, even electronics and home gadgets.
Even the long-haul international airlines seem to be suffering from a similar malaise of caprice. Virgin Atlantic frequent flyers can now even trade air miles for galactic miles! Two million air miles will get you a seat aboard the sub-orbital space flight Virgin Galactic, due to propel its first commercial astronauts into space by 2009.
And Dubai-based behemoth Emirates will become the first airline to allow in-flight mobile phone use as early as 2007. To me, that's enough reason not to fly the Mumbai-Dubai sector. The misery of having every Blackberry, palmtop and mobile phone activated in that confined space!
I, myself, have been guilty of succumbing to figure seduction, but am learning the hard way. Flying to Bangalore this weekend for a quick dash out of the city, my carrier was delayed by three hours on the way to and five hours on the way back. But I learned that LCCs are protected by this unwritten irreproachability clause, purely on the basis of offering irresistible pricing.
"This is a Low Cost Carrier madam," the airline representative is coached to say. That is to say - lower your expectations please. Are you not serving free refreshments? Low-cost carrier, Madam. Is there a lounge service we can access, seeing we've waited half the night in this airport? Low cost, Madam.
I was dragged away kicking and screaming by my embarrassed mother, even as other passengers, oddly, looked completely unaffected by our collective troubles.
It was then that I realised how on-target LCCs are with their customer base - no-expectation, first-time flyers who see this as a bus ride, except this bus has wings and will get them to their destination faster, even with a four-hour delay. This base will continue to provide business for the next few years, until the point when even they will decide not to settle.
And so as I sat stewing in my frustration, sans food, drink or apology, I reminisced about the days of old when choices were few and anger easily directed.Excuse me while I rush off to renew my long-expired frequent flier membership.