Commercial loyalty comes with a price

When I step on the plane on Tuesday it will be my first flight for exactly a month – suffice to say I’ve missed everything about flying from the smell of Avgas to the food (yes even the food). It’s therefore fair to say my receptiveness to all things aviation has been heightened as the month has dragged on. And so it was that I received an email on Wednesday from British Airways Executive Club.


“……We’re making these changes to provide more opportunities for you to spend Avios on reward flights as well as to ensure that the Executive Club continues to deliver a competitive and rewarding loyalty programme for the future.”

The ensuring outcry on frequent flyer forums, twitter and then traditional media made it clear that the flying minded consumer had seen through this little rouse and I will turn to that messaging a bit later.

In short British Airways are shifting the balance of their loyalty reward scheme to favor those who spend most. It is an entirely predictable and logical (up to a point) thing for British Airways to do as the global economy recovers and their passenger yields improve along with increased numbers of people flying on premium priced tickets. They are not doing this out of ignorance or guesswork – the airline business must be one of the most customer data rich businesses there is.

Today airlines make a choice – cheap and cheerful, flying lots of leisure passengers around for next to nothing, or premium focused courting long haul business travelers. The middle ground just does not work anymore.

But the strategy is not without risk for British Airways and I will give a personal example. In December my flight to Hong Kong with British Airways in Economy (which I then paid to upgrade to Premium Economy)was double the price of flying with Emirates via Dubai (about a 2 hour longer journey). I opted for the BA flight because I would receive Tier Points (which give me status) and Avios (which give me free flights). Now I was then subsequently upgraded to Club Class on one of the legs because of my status – so on this occasion loyalty paid off.

Fast forward to when the changes take effect and with my status already reached I would be facing a flight which earned me LESS tier points and LESS Avios. All of a sudden it’s tempting to “give Emirates a try”. If Emirates are sensible they will then upgrade me (they will know my status) and then potentially ‘status match’ me – before long I’m now using Emirates whenever I fly long haul east. See how easy that was ?

For someone outwith London it’s even more tempting. Out of loyalty (and the current scheme) they fly from Edinburgh or Manchester or other cities to London Heathrow and then connect. These ‘regional’ airports all now have Emirates service. Before long even some of the lucrative loyalists have switched.

Of course British Airways have access to all the numbers and know what they are doing – but it’s not an entirely risk free move.

Now to the messaging.


Sorry for shouting but it pains me as someone who earns his living in communications that big brands especially keep making this mistake.

British Airways substantially changed the proposition which they are entitled to do. “To Fly. To Serve.” is equally applicable to their shareholders as to their passengers. They are a business not a charity. However to attempt to mask a degradation of offer to a large number of customers on the basis that they were changing the scheme to make more ‘free’ reward flights available was as disingenuous as it was clumsy. They may as well have said “We are making more seats available but making it harder for you to get these seats.”

Much better to start off with “We are changing the scheme to better reward the customers that spend the most money…” Then go into the detail of all the changes including some elements which are marginally better for the infrequent loyalist (although these are tiny).

Air travel is now an incredibly competitive category. Numerous options and a lot of data to make an informed choice. Those of us who fly regularly grow attached to our preferred carrier, we are passionate about our support. But loyalty is a two way street and this week’s actions by British Airways will test the balance of that relationship for many people.