But he didn’t fly American.
“I examined airlines’ covid-19 policies and learned that American Airlines was not guaranteeing an empty seat between you and another passenger,” says Cross, a college professor from Waltham, Mass. “They weren’t providing a free cancellation policy. I looked at other carriers servicing Missoula and discovered Alaska Airlines offered substantial details about its enhanced plane cleaning — and it guaranteed an empty seat and offered free cancellation.”
Cross went with Alaska Airlines instead, skipping the miles and the opportunity to reach a higher elite status. It’s a decision more travelers are making this year, according to experts.
“Safety and flexibility matter most to customers now,” says Rebecca Wang, an assistant professor of marketing at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.
In a world of travel restrictions and lockdowns, loyalty programs became irrelevant. As the pandemic progressed, the companies behind travel loyalty programs were desperate to keep their customers. They reduced or waived annual fees on credit cards, added new bonuses and tapped the brakes on point devaluations. But the thing they feared most — that attitudes toward loyalty would shift permanently — could become a reality.
“Many airlines and hotels were slow to allow their customers to cancel and reschedule their trips,” says Bryce Conway, a founder of 10xTravel, a company that helps travelers navigate points and miles. “Customers won’t quickly forget that.”
He says people who had negative experiences with a company — even those who have reached elite levels — are going to reconsider their loyalty.
Bettina Garibaldi, director of travel, hospitality and leisure for the communications consultancy Ketchum, says travel companies know that travelers are less loyal and that it’s about to get worse.
“With the pandemic pummeling travel, consumers’ choices are going to be more erratic in the next few months,’’ Garibaldi predicts. Ketchum’s research suggests that nearly 70 percent of travelers think loyalty is becoming more difficult to maintain, she says. And almost 9 in 10 consumers say brands aren’t doing enough to earn their long-term business.
The fix may be to offer an alternative to traditional miles and points plans. For example, Delta last year experimented with a premium program called SkyMiles Select that charged passengers $59 a year for earlier boarding and guaranteed overhead bin space every time they flew. Garibaldi expects to see more programs like that.
“This way, travelers don’t need to have thousands of miles racked up to get the perk,” she says.
You can see the shift in travelers like Alex Beene. “Before the pandemic, I’d press through the annoyances of an airline or hotel chain if the miles and points situation was lucrative,” says Beene, a community coordinator in Nashville. “Now, I’m rethinking that.”
When he planned holiday travel from Nashville to Phoenix, Beene ignored the rewards his preferred carrier offered and booked his family on Delta. He’d read about the airline’s plan to leave middle seats open, serve food in sealed containers and strictly enforce mask rules. He says he felt safer there than on airlines that squeezed passengers into every seat.
“I wasn’t a Delta loyalist before,” he says. “But now I am.”
The experiences of people such as Beene and Cross suggest that travelers will put safety and customer service ahead of miles and points in the future.
Parts of the travel industry are in denial about these changes. I recall being a panelist at a loyalty conference last year. I suggested that loyalty programs faced an existential crisis because they weren’t taking care of their customers. Companies could no longer rely on a frequent-flier or frequent-stayer program to retain customers while offering substandard service. Two of my fellow panelists dismissed my idea, assuring each other that customers would return if the benefits were attractive enough. But Alex Miller agrees with me.
“Some will argue that service doesn’t matter now,” says Miller, CEO of the loyalty site UpgradedPoints.com. “But I would argue to the contrary. As the pandemic fades and travel recovers, levels of service become a key differentiator of why someone travels on one airline versus another.”
Miller says he believes that some established carriers — such as Delta, Southwest and Alaska — will benefit most. They acted quickly to waive ticket change fees and establish social distancing rules on their planes. Meanwhile, the no-frills, ultra-low-cost airlines such as Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit — which generally have not focused on customer service — stand to lose.
“The pandemic has broken all established patterns and required consumers to rethink their loyalty to any and all travel companies,” says Erik Budde, loyalty expert and CEO of GigaPoints, a credit-card comparison tool. “It’s a major inflection point.”
And it’s inflecting toward a future in which good customer service and flexibility matter more than a planeload of rewards you may or may not be able to redeem. In other words, it’s a saner future for travelers, one in which common sense prevails.
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