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Airlines Disclose Frequent Flyer Program Data (Sort Of)

March 22, 2000 – You may remember the movement in Congress back in 1999 to pass a Passenger Bill of Rights. As you might expect, the airlines and their lawyers, lobbyists and trade associations vigorously (and successfully) opposed the measure, eventually convincing Congress that the carriers deserved a chance to make things right with the traveling public, without federal intervention.

Generally, the airlines promised to develop and implement customer-friendly policies and procedures (called “Customer Care,” Customers First” and the like), and to provide consumers with more and better information regarding several aspects of the travel experience. Specifically, we are concerned here with the information the airlines have recently begun sharing with us about their frequent flyer programs.

Before I take the airlines to task for what they have and haven’t delivered, it’s only fair to be clear as to what I consider to be meaningful disclosure. The goal should be realistic as well, recognizing the resources required to track, extract and report program performance data. As a journalist, a consumer advocate, and a frequent traveler, what I want to know is as follows:

· Of an airline’s total seat inventory, what percentage was given to frequent flyers as award seats?

· On the airline’s most popular 10 routes, what percentage of available seats was given to frequent flyers?

· How many travelers were unable to book award flights due to capacity controls on award seats?

· How many frequent flyer program-related complaint letters did the airline receive?

· And, to make all the above meaningful as a decision-making tool, all the airlines would have to disclose the same data, based on identical assumptions. (E.g., If Delta defines a ‘member’ as anyone who enrolled in the program since its inception, and United only includes those with program activity within the past 24 months, it’s hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons.)

Answers to the above questions would help me (and, I hope, all travelers) make informed decisions about which airlines I should fly, and about how to best manage my mileage earning and redemption in the frequent flyer programs in which I participate.

Having established a data goal, let’s look at the airlines’ performance, in terms of information actually delivered. (You can find the following statistics posted on the airlines’ websites.)

American

American was among the first to disclose their frequent flyer program data, and for that they are to be commended. But it is the nature of the information, not its existence, which is to be evaluated. Here’s what they gave us:

PlanAAhead and AAnytime      2,039,500
Upgrades, Companion Awards     255,000
HospitAAlity Award             310,200
Special Mileage Award          149,100
Other Airline/Other            491,000
Total                        3,244,900

And, according to American, “Last year’s most popular award was the PlanAAhead Award for Economy Class travel within and between the continental U.S. and Canada, with 1,039,453 claimed.”

Notice that there are no denominators provided. We are given no clue as to the percentage of American’s total seats allocated to AAdvantage awards. Nor is there any route-specific information. And the only year-over-year comparison is invalid since the 1999 figure includes both PlanAAhead and AAnytime awards, and the previous year’s figure is PlanAAhead only.

Clearly, they have failed to address the questions we have established as our data goals. As a sanity check on those goals, I pose the question to you, reader: Do the figures provided by American in any way help you make better decisions about which airline deserves your business generally, or how American treats its AAdvantage members specifically?

I would suggest that the answer is “no” on both counts.

Continental

“In 1999, OnePass members redeemed a total of 1,270,999 rewards — that’s nearly one reward for every three active OnePass members.” (Continental defines ‘active’ as members who have had account activity in the last 12 months and have at least 5,000 miles in their OnePass account.)

With considerable fanfare, Continental compares the actual against their internal projection (1.2 million), as though they had exceeded a meaningful expectation. I would submit that the only meaningful expectation is the customer’s, and that internal targets are meaningless at best.

Continental goes on to say, “For your convenience, each month we will publish figures on this page disclosing the total rewards redeemed per month by our active members.” As of March 19, they only had the data for one month, January: 114,950.

That’s all from Continental–three stats: projected 1999 awards, actual 1999 awards, and actual awards for January 2000. Helpful? Hardly.

Northwest

Here’s Northwest’s offering:

> Free Travel (One-Way Trips)

    1998         1999      Percent
                          Increase
  2,318,000    2,590,000     12% 

> Upgrades (One-Way) 
    1998         1999      Percent
                          Increase
  100,400      187,700       87% 

> Total Miles Redeemed (x 000) 
    1998          1999       Percent
                            Increase
  43,324,605  47,422,489       9% 

> Five Most Popular WorldPerks Award Flight
  Segments During 1999

  Minneapolis/St. Paul - Phoenix
  Detroit - San Francisco
  Detroit - Los Angeles
  Minneapolis/St. Paul - San Francisco
  Minneapolis/St. Paul - Los Angeles

One-way trips? Total miles redeemed? These aren’t consumer metrics. We’re interested in roundtrip tickets–how many, and how hard they were to get. And while it’s interesting to note which routes were the most popular, the real question is how difficult it was to obtain an award seat on those routes.

Summary

None of the above three carriers has seen fit to give the traveling public information which would be truly helpful in evaluating or choosing an airline. What’s more, and adds insult to injury, the data disclosed is so categorically different as to make any meaningful comparisons impossible. (A conspiracy theorist would suspect collusion.)

So where do we go from here?

I am not in general an advocate of government meddling in the business of business. But in the airline industry, the “invisible hand” of the free market just doesn’t seem up to the task of aligning carriers’ behavior with consumers’ needs. Accordingly, I for one would encourage Congress to revisit the need for a federally mandated Passenger Bill of Rights, including the disclosure of meaningful frequent flyer program information.

If you think that’s too drastic a solution, I would ask you to at least join me in pressing the airlines to show us the respect we deserve by providing us with meaningful, actionable information.

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