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The mostly misnamed loyalty programs of major airlines are looking increasingly like Frequent Foolers programs, intended not so much to reward loyalty to the airline as to demand it. What began as a marketing tool has developed into a sales trap, writes Andrew L. Urban.

My friend wanted to use frequent flyer points for a return flight from Paris to Salzburg, which requires 40,000 points (economy). Fuel surcharge and taxes must be paid in cash, and they come to $364.30. That’s not a typo; I’ll repeat it: $364.30, or about 278 euros. You can buy the same ticket online at Lufthansa for 298.18 Euros. 

Salzburg – we want Mozart, less dishonesty
[Photo by Louise Keller]

The reason given is ridiculous: the fuel surcharge is added to the award ticket (in this case over $200) but is included in the cash ticket. No, it doesn’t make sense, because it’s all part of the sneaky system that has trapped millions of travellers in frequent flyer programs which no longer reward loyalty; they exploit it.

Consider this example. Husband and wife each have 41,500 points in the Thai Airlines’ Royal Orchid Plus program. They wish to make use of these points prior to their expiry for a trip to Europe. That’s how they earned the points in the first place. 

For their next joint trip, if they could combine their points (to 83,000) and top them up with, say, 7,000 American Express Reward points to reach 90,000 points, one of them could book a free economy return ticket to Europe – a genuine ‘thank you for your loyalty’. But they can’t, because unlike Virgin Australia which permits family pooling, Thai’s Royal Orchid Plus program does not. Each needs another 48,500 points to buy a return economy ticket to Europe.

The rat-cunning frequent fooler systems

What about an upgrade then? You wish! If this couple were to buy a Thai Airways economy ticket (in the right category of economy, an internal demarcation they would have to know) they could use points to upgrade – subject to availability of course – but they each need 95,000 points - and that’s one way. 

The rat-cunning frequent fooler systems have been designed to keep the honey on the table, always just out of reach. Always needing to be topped up with just another paid trip or two … the threat of expiry hangs over the frequently fooled flyer. Yes, their loyalty expires.

But wait, these two also have points in the United Mileage Plus program: 56,000 in his and 45,000 in hers. These are not enough on their own (they need 100,000 points for a one way economy ticket) to be useful for long haul travel, and they too, will expire before they can be used, because this couple can’t afford flying about the world spending a fortune to save money. And despite being in the Star Alliance (with fellow Star member Thai) the points cannot be combined with the Thai points. 

To fly business class Sydney - Europe return on Thai will need 170,000 points each. But even if you scraped together 170,000 unexpired points (maybe buying up to 30,000 at $40 per 000), if the couple wants to be sure to travel together, you have to carefully coordinate the cash booking and points booking – many months ahead.

You’re either Virgin or you ain’t

And then there’s that fuel surcharge. The ticket booked with 170,000 points attracts ‘fuel & other taxes’ of $1,000. If you book and pay cash, the taxes shrink to $800; and if you book and pay cash online, these ‘taxes’ miraculously shrink even further, to $400. 

So much for our loyalty, us chumps. But at least Virgin Australia appreciates frequent flyers’ loyalty, with Velocity, a more genuine and flexible program – and after all, loyalty is a two way street. It’s a pity, then, that the Virgin brand doesn’t take the next logical step and allow pooling between their Velocity program and Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club. You’re either Virgin or you ain’t.

Paris – frequented by many
[Photo by Gemma Urban]

Published May 9, 2013

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NOTE: Writing in The Weekend Australian, (April 27/28, 2013) Steve Creedy reports on airlines ‘gouging on fuel surcharges’ and quotes the boss of Flight Centre, Graham Turner, calling for the removal of surcharges entirely, such charges to be included in published fares. The 'fuel surcharge' is a rort and the frequent flyer loyalty program is another rort – both are dishonest.

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