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Are Passengers Flying on Reward Tickets Entitled to the Same Treatment as a Revenue Passenger? (Or: Do the Airlines Owe Us Anything?)

I’d like to preface this post by saying (as I have said here before) that I have only the highest level of respect for my fellow bloggers writing about the airline industry.  There are a handful of people out there (Lucky, Gary, Brett, Mark, others) who have devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to sharing their expertise to their specific niche in the airline world (some focus more on the operational aspects of airlines, others on the frequent flyer programs).

All of us have written trip reports at one time or another, sharing, with various levels of specificity, the minutia of the travel experience.  One thing that we have in common, though, is that when we write about the more exotic travels on our itinerary, we are most frequently flying on reward tickets.   I’ve been pretty vocal here about how I believe we’re in a golden age where we can pretty much fly wherever we want on the planet for free by accumulating miles through a wide-ranging set of activities that often don’t even involve flying.

Which brings me to a question that’s been eating at me a bit:  do we have any right to complain about any aspect of reward travel?  I’m extremely torn.  The airlines should be providing a consistent level of service, and they should be clear about what passengers should expect in terms of service.

But if we’re on a reward ticket, should we have that same expectation?  Is it a legitimate complaint if your business class meal wasn’t up to snuff if you’re flying on a ticket earned by opening a credit card or two?  Should we just be happy that we received safe and relatively on-time air transport?  Should the airlines just give us a seat on a reward ticket and make us pay for in-flight amenities?  Would you pay fewer miles if your reward ticket didn’t include food and drink?

Do we have a right to complain if an airline doesn’t make “enough” seats available for reward travel (at least at the base redemption level)?  Not to call out Lucky (who, I can’t say enough, is pretty brilliant about this whole thing), but he did say a couple of weeks ago that he found Singapore Airlines to be “arrogant” for blocking award redemption on SkySuites on their A380s.  Is that arrogance?

The airlines created their loyalty programs and gotten us hooked.  But do they really owe us wide open low-priced redemption options?  Do they have a right to say, “y’know, we’re actually not going to allow any low-priced redemptions to Europe during the summer.  If you want to use miles then, it’ll cost you double.”  They raise their airfares during the high season and few would begrudge them the right to charge $1,000 for a flight to London in August; why don’t they have the right to block out cheap reward seats?

Of course, it’s great when airlines offer wide open availability in premium cabins on international travel as reasonable redemption rates with unlimited stopovers.  Who wouldn’t love that?  But if an airline doesn’t offer that (or, God forbid, an airline did offer it and then changed their rules), are they horrible?

In other words, if Delta’s much reviled SkyMiles program is wildly popular (and the airline’s resurgence since their merger with Northwest certainly suggests it’s not keeping people away), are they smart to keep their low mileage rewards very restricted while offering two other levels of redemption?  Are all the other airlines making a poor business decision by giving away more seats at lower levels?

Should carriers differentiate based on how you earned your miles?  Should they separate miles in your account by whether you earned them from flying or by other means?  Should that affect redemption opportunities?

Honestly, I don’t know the answer.  I feel like we expect an awful lot from frequent flyer programs while giving airlines very little in return.  And that’s fine.  I’m just wondering if our expectations are just set a bit too high.  Or maybe not.

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  1. You should absolutely expect the same service as if you were paying. You earned the miles and the airlines charge you more miles if you want better service. If they want to provide subpar service on a business class ticket, they need to call it something else not the same term as paid. Also, they need to disclose that fact you will not be getting business class service. Same goes for hotels, imho. Availability is another question, though. I don’t think you can demand seats but if airlines don’t have tickets, then the miles are useless. That’s when it’s time to move airlines.

  2. Reward passengers are entitled to the same treatment. Airlines do a huge business in frequent flyer miles (e.g., selling them to credit card issuers by the millions), and they even have them on their books as a liability until they’re redeemed (like a store and a gift certificate).

  3. Treatment of passengers should be independent of the form of payment.

    Whining of those who “earn” first class tickets by churning credit cards or “buying” dollar coins (essentially having us tax payers pay for their tickets) is ranging from annoying to despicable.

  4. Many airlines should be thankful for the couple of award ticketed pax on each flight. Like Doug stated – credit card affinity programs kept some airlines flying during rough skies.

  5. I do think that reward ticket flyers should be treated the same, and I have not flown on a reward ticket before.

    If the airlines don’t like people flying on rewards tickets if they’re not earned by flying, then they need to change their model. In the meantime, they are a customer who paid, sometimes in strange ways, for that ticket.

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