The future of airline frequent flyer loyalty programs

This past February, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and likely others were in attendance at “Loyalty 2011,” an annual conference for all things loyalty programs. One of the main topics focused on the future of the now 30-year old marketing machines, noting specifically that the industry should evolve with the needs of those racking up the miles.

Differentiation and creativity were discussed, including Delta’s elimination of mileage expiration for SkyMiles members, and Qantas adding additional non-airline partners such as retailer Woolworths.

In terms of redeeming miles, Iain Webster, a senior loyalty consultant, noted the often hard-to-find flight availability for award space and added “… you have to try and get people thinking of different ways of burning miles.” Members of United Airlines Mileage Plus can redeem for hotel stays & car rentals, along with a variety of other products, services and merchandise. Recent advertising supports this ability, with United specifically promoting itself as “the airline that wants you to use your miles.”

This all got me to thinking of what I personally would like to see added to the programs. Here are few from my wish list:

  • Enhanced Upgrade Awards: Not the current ones out there today, where space is required in the buckets allocated specifically for upgrades, such as United’s NC and NF for Business Class and First Class respectively. Rather, I’d like the ability to redeem even more miles (with or without a co-pay) to confirm into the full-fare buckets of C and F on my purchased tickets. Sort of like a Standard Award for upgrades. For some of my trips where I don’t want to redeem for a “free” award, such as my frequent trips to Australia, I’d definitely love this ability. The mileage amounts would likely be hefty, but a program like this would be valuable to me.
  • Milestone Awards: US Airways launched a pretty good program this year, granting perks for each mileage or segment level achieved throughout the year. Yes, United has historically had the Elite Choice program (not this year!), but what I’d like to see is a consistent published program with meaningful rewards. Back in the day there were mileage bonuses for every x-flights in a specified time period, and the more recent programs allowed the ability to nominate friends & family to elite status. Give us some of these things back and add other perks like $200-500 e-certificates for hitting a stated mileage level, or a one-time confirmable upgrade on ANY fare basis (into C or F like above), not $50 restaurant certificates.
  • Behind-the-Scenes Awards. Even though I’ve worked for United in multiple departments and have seen a lot of behind-the-scenes activities, I’d still love to spend miles for a trip to a control tower, or a sit down meal with executives (with a swag bag, of course), or a chance to ride jumpseat in the cockpit again, or a flight simulator experience. I know, I know… over reactionary security concerns would likely prevent such awards from ever being available, but I can still dream.
  • Enhanced Partnerships. Non-airline partnerships is nothing new for frequent flyer programs, but how about expanding them to include both earning and redemption opportunities for ultimate travel experiences such as an expedition to Antarctica, or other types of packaged vacations (Safaris?). In 2007, I rode the Indian Pacific luxury train from Sydney to Perth in Australia, and thought at that time wouldn’t it be great if I could earn miles for this, or redeem for an award trip. United is also now the official airline for the PGA Tour, so I’d like to see special opportunities for burning miles on tour-related activities, like tickets, meet & greets, and rides in the “Snoopy 1” blimp, etc.

What would you like to see enhanced during the evolution of the programs?

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    • Hi Mark,

      They currently don’t have anything set up for PGA experiences. These were my wish list of items, but I’ll certainly report if things change and they create some type of event/program.

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