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The End of Loyalty; Or Continental, I Hardly Knew Ye

Longtime readers know that I try not to bore you with details of my own travel life.  I’m aware that you probably don’t care.  But I’ll share a little story because I think it makes a larger point:

I booked a ticket with Continental earlier this week, and immediately after I purchased it online, I realized that I forgot to give them a discount code I had.  I called the airline, they told me to cancel the reservation and re-book it.  No problem.  I cancelled, but when I went to re-book, the fare had jumped $100.  Keep in mind, this whole thing happened in the course of 5 minutes.  I called Continental back and, long story short, they refused to adjust the fare.

Here’s my point:   Airlines have created frequent flyer programs under the guise of "building loyalty."  These programs have been successful, in that customers become beholden to them in their quest for a free ticket.  I have been as guilty as anyone — I felt an odd sense of loyalty to Continental, in part because "elite status" afforded a handful of benefits, but primarily because I felt there was a tacit agreement  I’ll fly ridiculous connections through Houston in exchange for being treated well. 

But that’s not really correct, and that’s the point of my story:  having a handful of (dwindling) benefits prescribed by the company doesn’t build loyalty.  Being treated fairly even though it’s NOT in the handbook is what builds loyalty.  Continental could’ve recognized that my situation was a bit unique—THEY told me to cancel the ticket under the assumption that the fare wouldn’t disappear in 5 minutes.  But they chose to go by the book: "Sir, fares can change at any minute.  We won’t change the fare" is what I was told.  I kept saying to the person on the phone that I understand the rule, but I was hoping the uniqueness of the situation warranted a different answer.  It did not.

And that’s when it hit me that Continental (and most companies—I hate to pick on them) truly didn’t care.  That all of the ridiuclous connections I’ve taken, and higher fares I’ve paid, and less legroom I’ve suffered instead of flying JetBlue didn’t matter.  Rules were rules.  Which is fine — now I know where I stand.  They owe me nothing, I owe them nothing.  We’re seeing other people.  I’ll be flying JetBlue and United a whole lot more now, even knowing that they probably don’t care either.  Airlines aren’t building loyalty, they’re buying us off with points.  And once I realized that I’m just being played — I’m just being bought off — I was liberated.  I’ll collect points with Continental and whoever else, but I’ll stop kidding myself about being treated well in return.  There ya go.

To end on a positive note, a few years back I was flying to New York from Columbus on America West.  I had a connecting flight on another airline to continue on to Washington, DC.  My America West flight was delayed, and I explained to the America West customer service person that I had a connection in New York that I was going miss because of the delay.  Despite the rules of the fare, she changed my ticket and put me on a nonstop to Washington.  THAT’S how you build loyalty.

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  1. Living near Newark, I fly CO a lot, too. But I stopped flying them cross country if I can avoid it because they fly these tiny little 737’s that should not be used for more than a 3 hour flight. I’ve stopped caring about their frequent flier program because:

    a) unless you use double miles, you can’t redeem them. Ever. For anything. (As far as I can tell).
    b) unless you’re flying out of a non-hub airport, you can’t get an upgrade unless you’re platinum – they simply don’t have enough 1st class seats on these planes, and I’ll never fly enough on just CO to make Platinum, so why bother at all?
    c) their “meals at mealtimes” ads should be rephrased, “snacks at mealtimes, and no kosher snacks for you.” This has nothing to do with their FF program, but it’s false advertising, and it pi**es me off.

    -avi

  2. As a OnePass “initite platinum,” I know a little about customer service at Continental. Generally, it’s pretty good. But the problem is that corporations aren’t smart and nice — people are. Admittedly, a good corporate culture increases your odds of running across a smart and nice employee, but certainly doesn’t guarantee it. With telephone rez agents, if on my first call with a “problem” I don’t reach a smart and nice employee, I usually try calling again (although, occassionally, the mean employee will put something in “my record” that prevents the subsequent employee from helping me!).

    In this case, I believe CO CEO Larry Kellner would have wanted you to get your discount. He would understand that was the right thing to do. But it’s difficult to empower frontline staff to start fiddling around with fare buckets and such — a lot of revenue call leave the barn that way. So it was a hard problem to fix. The easy way out was to do nothing for you. You needed to find a smart and nice supervisor to make the adjustment. Your odds were probably 50%.

    I wouldn’t hold it “personally” against the airline, though. It’s just business. You should fly on whomever gives you the most value for money. My guess is that every airline — and every company, for that matter — will sometimes get it right, and sometimes get it wrong.

  3. I few mos back you mocked me for having like 3000 miles on 7 different frequent flier programs. I the cheapest/most convenient ticket for me. I do not stop over unless it is entirely unavoidable. I would bet that while I may not get the “perks” of mega-jumbo elite status (which you indicate seem to not be all that much anymore anyway), I’ve saved more money on cheaper tickets which resulted in the equivalent of a free ticket.

    Plus, no bicycle

  4. Dear I Was Right (if that is your real name),
    I mocked because I love. And when you needed the free ticket, I was able to help you out because I was a slave to Continental.
    Sincerely,
    Jared

    And I agree wholeheartedly with IAHPHX—CO’s customer service has been quite good. His larger point is correct: it’s really about empowering front line employees to make decisions that benefit the customer. I’ve had situations similar to this where they’ve made the adjustment (and situations that have gone the other way).

    I don’t really hold this against Continental — as you say, there are good employees and less-than-good employees. It’s more that I hope that “loyalty” means that the company sides with you when the rules don’t, but decency does.

  5. Whenever possible, fly Southwest. It is not a coincidence they are the ONLY airline that is STILL making money. Great service and very frequent flights.

    Sure, everyone has a gripe every now and then. But with Southwest, they are fewer and far between.

  6. The stupidest airline employee I ever ran across worked at Southwest. A few years ago, I was travelling with one of my children, who at the time was an infant. The gate agent insisted that I “prove” she was younger than two, or I’d be forced to buy her a ticket. I had already flown with her on several airlines, and nobody had ever asked for a birth certificate. And anyone who had ever eyeballed a baby would have known this kid wasn’t two. Finally, with her supervisor, I was able to negotiate a deal whereby I “bought” her a ticket and then mailed in a copy of her birth certificate for a refund.

    Due to this nonsense, I think I avoided Southwest for 3 years. Until I needed to go somewhere, and they happened to be much cheaper. :

  7. Hmm, get this one.
    I live in TN, my parents and brothers and sisters are in NJ. I have a 3 year old daughter and a wife. My family flies to NJ at least 3 times a year on vacation, and I travel at least 4 times a year for work. 2 times of which I bring my daughter. So. I purchase a total of 16 tickets MINIMUM a year all from Continental. Why? Because I am a member and Northwest was being quite inflexible with their rules.
    OK, so, what do I get for my loyalty to Co Airlines? I get told that I cannot change my flight from a 2:15 Departure to a 5:45 Departure without paying the difference in AirFair. Now. … here’s the kicker.
    I have 2 seats on a 2:15pm flight. This flight still has 7 seats available. I am asking to be placed on a 5:45pm flight that has 8 seats currently available.
    At the moment both flights cost $629.00 per seat. My original price was $329.00 for both of the seats I have.. so about $165.00 per seat. A huge difference, yes, but if they moved me, they’d still have the same amount of seats for sale at their rediculous $629.00 per seat all on the same day…. After speaking to a manager and explaining that I have already stopped flying with NWA for a similar reason, and I will not continue my loyalty to Continental if they do not help me. Well, this was pointless. I was told, in the past, Continental would do this, but right now they’re in the “red” and cannot make exceptions like this. I tried to explain that things like this will put them further in the Red because they will lose loyal customers.. I was told simply that “We have our rules in place for a reason”..
    nice.. Next stop, and email to someone more important I guess..

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