Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Frequent Flyer

Frequent Flyer programs - and all loyalty cards for that matter - have but one objective: to stop you taking your business elsewhere. That's fair enough I guess - free enterprise and all that - as long as the benefits are shared equally between you, the punter, and them, the airline/shop/hotel/car rental company. I belong to (too) many such programs and can promise you, there is more in it for them.

:-) At the Airport
Two of the benefits provided by my bmi Diamond Club gold card alone make it worth persevering with them and putting up with all the other crap: priority check-in and lounge access.
My membership entitles me to use First/Business Class check-in counters when flying with any Star Alliance airline, even when I only have an economy ticket (which is most of the time). The thing I hate most about air travel is queueing so this is a real boon. I can't remember the last time I had to queue for more than five minutes to check in for a flight (Riyadh airport excepted but that's a whole 'nother story). It makes me feel special to strut past snaking lines of the great unwashed and up the eight feet of red carpet to the Business Class check in desk. Often I've got my boarding card and am heading for passport control before the guy who entered the terminal before me has found his place at the back of a long queue. It's worth its weight in gold.

Airline lounges are another little luxury that I can't imagine doing without. A relatively quiet, peaceful sanctuary from the pushing, jostling, chilren wailing, sweating throng that is the main body of the terminal. Once in the lounge you can pour yourself a drink, sit back, and relax in peace and quiet while waiting for your flight to be called. A full range of complimentary refreshments is usually on offer, including sandwiches, croissants, biscuits, crisps, nuts and fruit, plus hot and cold drinks including a fully-stocked bar (Riyadh airport excepted, but that's a whole 'nother story). Free newspapers and magazines are available and most also have wireless internet access (although for a fee - when are they going to wake up and provide it for free?).

Of course this benefit does not extend to my family, so - gold card or not - when we're going on holiday we have to slum it. I have blagged our way in to the lounge en famille a couple of times but I don't see why I should have to. Come on bmi - here's another tip from a loyal customer: provide all gold card holders with two family lounge passes per year; you'd be very popular!

As with priority check-in I have mixed feelings about the class culture that the lounge implies. I don't think I'm better than other people but I like to be treated better than other people. It goes to feeling special, valued, wanted, and I'm not alone. In fact I'd be willing to bet that anyone in that seething mass I can see out of the window below me would jump at the chance to swap places. The airlines know this of course, and make every effort to vaunt their top services as something all their passengers can aspire to, but which - in the real world - few can afford.

I guess the thing to remember when you feel about to be swept off your feet on a wave of adulation is that it's not you they love, it's your money.

:-( Terms & Conditions Apply
Ironically the frequent flyer benefit that the airlines tout most is actually the least valuable: air miles. They reel you in with promises of free flights around the world, and it's true; you do indeed earn air miles every time you fly with them, purchase items using their credit card etc. The catch comes when you try to actually redeem them for free flights.
This is what I alluded to at the start of this post. Air miles help the airline out more than you, because they decide which flights are eligible and it's always those flights that they cannot fill any other way. We want to fly back to the UK for Christmas, and bmi fly direct to Heathrow from Riyadh, and I've got over 200,000 bmi miles in the bank - perfect, I can even afford for us all to fly Business Class! I go to their website to book the flights, only to find that all flights in December are "blacked out" for miles redemption. In other words the airline is saying to me, "Get lost. We can fill these flights with paying passengers so we don't need your miles. Come back when we're desperate to fill seats, then maybe we'll let you in."

See? It's for their convenience. You can fly for free but only when it suits them. To add insult to injury they even hike their prices at busy times like December, so not only can I not redeem my miles but if I want to fly with them at all I have to pay a premium - forget it bmi!

Airlines should treat their best customers like,... well... their best customers, and let them have unrestricted access to redemption flights. The airline that does this would truly have an edge over the competition, but unfortunately I think they prefer to collude in deciding "standard practice" precisely to prevent this happening.

So, we are coming back to UK for Christmas, but with Gulf Air via Bahrain. I'd rather take an indirect route that doesn't earn me any miles than play bmi's game.
I think I'll save my air miles for that weekend break in Southampton next February I've been promising myself. As long as it's OK with bmi, that is.


Mand said...

You haven't really got the hang of this "living away from home" lark have you? Booking your Christmas flights in October?? Are you mad??? You need to book them much earlier than that to get the cheapest fares. Trust me, I'm speaking from experience. I never pay any more for my Christmas flights than I do the rest of the year - its just that the demand is so high, that the cheapest seats are sold first. Not really BMI's fault that you're not organised, Mr Neal :-)

Chris said...

Well Mand, if I had always intended to pay for the flights, then of course I'd have booked them much earlier; but that wouldn't have helped me in my plan to get free flights using my miles, since it now seems the flights will always be blacked out at what they know is a busy time of year.
You're right, maybe I should have tried earlier, but also I'm right; airlines should let frequent flyers who have earned miles spend them when they want, not when it suits the airline!