Monday, 5 October 2009

What is The Point of Airmiles?

I have over the years, off and on, saved airmiles - the BA focused customer loyalty scheme. I have tens of thousands of the things. Yet, it is only when you actually try to do something with them that you realise they really are pretty useless.

This year I have travelled a lot on BA through work, and the odd bit of leisure. For a while I made a conscious effort to stick with them as I thought travel would be a lot easier through Terminal 5 and I would indeed build up airmiles that might get me to a Silver Card or I could use them on a holiday. I have must admit that I have travelled enough this year to become an expert on every terminal except four and most European airports. I can say that Terminal 5 is pretty good - it's very accessible from the M25 if you can avoid the roadworks, there's plenty of room at setdown, a good carpark and there are reasonable bus routes serving it if you don't mind endless stops. Trains are fine if you are coming from London - other than that, then forget it.

Quite big things let it down. Staff shortage is the first. That is at both security check in and passport control. It's like being a local Budgens - they wait until the queues are so long that people are snaking all over the place and back into the terminal before they even consider opening up a second or third machine and there are always ones not being used. Meanwhile at passport control it's just an ugly mess and a big scrum - in fact, at every terminal. It's a real shame after so much money and effort when into it. Going through any airport in Germany you simply do not get those sorts of queues or daft bottlenecks, there are always plenty of machines or stalls open and loads of staff. The throughput is much faster too and that has nothing to do with the severity of checks, it is simply staff more interested in getting the queues down and more of them.

Enough of those gripes - back to blinking airmiles. I read with some eagerness that BA has opened a direct route to Las Vegas and next year for my brother-in-law's 40th birthday we are going there. The big problem I have found with airmiles is that they are not a real 'currency'. For instance, if you want to upgrade to Club Europe, it's the same airmiles for an hour's trip as a long haul upgrade. Dumb. The second thing is, it's actually quite hard to spend them. We are one of those families who have to grab time when we can and even if we could plan a trip, we would usually buy a package holiday of some sort. So airmiles would be handy for grabbing those trips of whim. But there is fat chance of you getting the dates you want.

It is a Ryan Air approach that says that one type of traveller only gets cheap fares, all others pay accordingly and expensively for their needs. BA airmiles are the same - unless you are flexible to an amazing degree, it's highly unlikely you will get a flight to suit. And this is not just on one occasion - my airmiles have not been spent for nearly 3 years and yet I try regularly to get flights with them.

So Vegas next June sounded ideal. I now had dates a year ahead, could be flexible by about 3 days and I needed hotels too. Wallop. I could possibly get a flight 10 days after the dates needed and then coming back would mean nearly a fortnight stay which was not ideal for a planned 4 night trip. I didn't even get to investigating a hotel.

I then made the mistake of phoning the Executive Club to see if there was a mistake. Nope. No airmiles seats were available for that flight any time around the dates. The phoneperson said that it was a very busy route - so busy it has yet to start flying, I mentioned. Ah, there had been high demand. Right, that's why I could buy the tickets by the bucket load from any website including BA's, I suppose. Ah, said the person, there are only a few airmiles seats allocated to each flight and therefore they sell out early. Given the route has yet to launch and was only just featured in HighLife Magazine, that was pretty quick indeed. In answer to my question, why are the airmiles seats limited to so few, the person said that they had to make a profit.

At this point I did not hold my peace. I asserted that the whole point of a customer loyalty scheme is that customers already have paid for tickets upon which BA accrues a certain amount of profit which is set aside to pay for these future flights. I can see the point of trying to limit them but by making the number so low, and therefore the scheme so inflexible, people like me would get exasperated and therefore think the scheme is valueless. Put simply, if you cannot redeem the airmiles, then they are worthless. Just to make matters worse, when I tried to use them for the same dates on non-direct routes and via partner airlines, the same answer came up.

So out of sheer morbid interest, I looked at several websites and airlines, every one of them was cheaper for direct and indirect routes to Las Vegas. In the end, we looked at two great deals via Air France and Virgin that got us 4 nights at the Bellagio Hotel and the whole package was cheaper than an indirect flight with a BA partner, using mostly airmiles to pay for the flights and having to fly over week later. Just to be clear, as Robert Peston would say, it was more expensive using a customer loyalty program and less flexible than the alternatives, one of which was a direct flight.

I could have commented that BA is losing shed loads of money and it is simply driving customers away as, frankly speaking, if I can avoid BA in the future, I will. The rules on accruing Tier Points are stupid and Virgin does not have such a stupid and complex scheme nor do most other airlines. Finally, all the others, in my experience, fall over backwards to help you spend the loyalty points.

After all, that is the entire point of the scheme. Perhaps it may dawn on BA management that if their loyalty scheme is not incentivising loyalty then they are giving away money for no reason to fund it. However, if they give the profit away in the spirit of customer retention, do not make it difficult to redeem the points.

It's pretty simple really. Vegas here we come - and not via BA.

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