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.