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Do you still remember the first time you were turned down by a love interest? Brutal. All those feelings, the time, money and energy, for nothing. Now, does that last sentence sound like your airline loyalty program of late? Like waves in the sea, worldwide economies make drastic moves in periods ranging from 5-10 years and we’re currently riding an epic, booming wave, offering record profits and revenues for airlines. It’s literally never been better in the airline business, despite all the cries. But what happens when it all goes bust?

Do you remember 08′? Of course you do. Jobs were hit, travel budgets slashed and the world teetered on recession. Vacations? Gone. Airlines couldn’t sell a seat to a casual traveler; and for many airlines, bankruptcy was the only way forward. During this time of turmoil airlines pined, begged and borrowed to curry favor with travelers. Much like a used car salesman, they were willing to throw just about anything into the deal to get your butt in a seat. Free elite status, upgrades everywhere, generous lounge policies, fee waivers for a good customer and service designed to keep you from looking elsewhere. Everything mattered.

Airlines are failing to see an end to these boom times, and if they’re not, they’re just hell bent on squeezing every dollar out of the good times, while they last. Fair enough, but here’s the thing: we’ll still be here when they turn. We’ll remember the days when they turned us away. The lounge access policy changes, the devaluations to our miles, the decrease in upgrades, the unwilling attitude to interline our bags onto the next flight, the slashing of fee waivers and all the other things that regularly make our blood boil. We’ll definitely remember the days where they decided to duck and hide during delays, rather than assist passengers too. Much like the love interest that was once too good for us, we won’t be easily fooled when the airline who cut everything from us comes begging. Where was the “customer”, in customer service when you “didn’t need my business”? The airline that looks further than the immediate financial quarter balance sheet will win. Who will offer the best, most rewarding loyalty program for tomorrow, NOT just the most profitable one today?

Winning loyalty today is what every smart airline should be doing, yet in an eternal game of copycat, virtually none are engaging. A loyalty program is a marketing tool, a profit center and a competitive advantage, but to succeed it must maintain all of those qualities, not just the profit part. If I get more upgrades, fee waivers, personalized service and value for my miles I’m going to stick around, I’m going to book all of my travel with one airline. Airlines can’t look something such as a “same day confirmed” fee waiver as a liability, it’s an advantage. Why? Charging $50 to change my ticket on the day of travel is far less than the thousands I’ll spend in the year on air travel. Knowing I have flexibility will keep me on the airline. Loyalty programs need to be genuinely rewarding.

Airlines must also recognize that passengers are more than just the journey du jour. Economy ticket today, refundable First Class tomorrow, all the same person. How do you let that frequent flyer who spends tons of money on your airline know that they are valuable, even as a budget economy traveler? Within that thought, is it really worth selling every seat up front to people who won’t fly when the economy turns, rather than saving a couple seats, to upgrade your most valued customers? Is it really worth charging even your most frequent travelers for water, tea or meals in economy? There’s a happy medium between ancillary revenue streams, which loyalty programs are; and showing enough restraint to still reward customers in impactful ways. The alternative? Loyalty is dead, we book the cheapest ticket and travel becomes like grocery shopping, just with less reward.

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