business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

In response to Tuesday's Eye-Opener, in which we took note of a case in which a Chicago man is suing United Airlines, saying that in the wake of its merger with Continental, the company has diluted his benefits as a Million Mile flier; at the same time, there are criticisms of the company for believing that some of its frequent fliers are "over-entitled," which we thought illustrated a somewhat corrupted approach to loyalty marketing.

We got a lot of responses to this story ... and yesterday, an MNB user sent along a link to a MarketWatch story suggesting that that there is an almost institutional approach among the airlines to diminished loyalty.

It is something called "status match," described in the story as "a long-standing but little known program in which you can use your elite level on one airline to get a like status on another in an abbreviated time period ... The programs are simple in their approach but stubborn in their procedure. You must show documented proof that you are a frequent flier in good standing on another airline. Generally, they require a 90-day 'challenge' period in which you must fly, at a puffed-up fare, a certain amount of miles or segments, which are stops between one destination to another. Switching is most beneficial for those in the unappreciated ranks if they’re planning a cross-ocean vacation voyage that will build clout fast.

"Requests, however, are mostly handled individually and only given once in a lifetime. They could also cost anywhere from $200 to $600 to apply, dependent on the carrier and the status level you’re seeking."

I found this fascinating - for a number of reasons.

For one thing, I've been traveling on business for something like thirty years - and happen to be a United Million Mile flier - and had no idea such programs existed.

I have no idea if they are worthwhile as currently constituted, but we may see more of this as business fliers - by very definition the most profitable customers that airlines have - become disenchanted with the loyalty programs they've been using for years.

It could be a turning point for airlines. Not that long ago, frequent flier programs were considered the gold standard of loyalty schemes - they were easy to understand, and for the most part, everybody accepted the notion that the better customers got the better service. (Try that in a supermarket, where the best customers get to wait on long lines and the small-transaction shoppers get the express line.)

Now, the gold seems to be tarnished and losing value. And if it happens, I suspect that we'll be able to say with some credibility that the airlines have nobody to blame but themselves, as they institute changes and create cultures that seem to favor themselves instead of the customers.

It is a shift to which every marketer should pay attention.
KC's View: