Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Forget Valuations … Will My Frequent Flyer Points Be Merged?

Since, I’m not an investor in any of these companies and I don’t track this specific industry as a journalist, my interest is pretty selfish! Will all of this make life any better for me as a flyer? I’m not talking about dirt cheap prices. I’ve bought enough of these low-cost tickets and been conned enough by the fine print to not chase discounts. Instead I’ve decided to do the counter-intuitive thing and get myself enrolled in all the frequent flyer programs! Credit card points, third party purchases and obesessive internet usage have all contributed to lots of free miles and trips!

I’m in fact specifically interested in whether these mergers will make frequent flyer programs more competitive and more accesible. The internet is the lifeline of any decent frequent flyer program and unfortunately none of our carriers have done a good job online.

IA and AI combined their frequent flyer programs some time ago but the entire process seems to be one big mess. They’ve done a smart thing by starting a new website dedicated to the FF program except that they haven’t taken the old ones down from the IA and AI websites. The result is that all three sites show different versions of your mileage statement since they’re obviously not interlinked. The helpdesk for the FF program has been outsourced to a third-party which is acceptable. What is not acceptable is the fact that the third-party also works with ’sarkari’ timings, processes and attitudes. You still need to download forms, print them out and fax them back to perpetually busy numbers. A couple of days later you need to call the numbers and if you’re lucky to get through, confirm the fact that your fax was received and processed. Its been months and I’m still waiting for my points to reflect. Incidentally the reason I need to claim missing miles is that my FF number could not be entered into the Air Mauritius system when I checked-in. If this is the case with a code-share partner, then being part of a global FF alliance is a distant dream.

Kingfisher is by far the best airline I have flown in India, but their online presence isn’t as classy as the real-world experience. The website is very “1.0″ if you know what I mean and the frequent flyer module looks as if it has been thrown in as an afterthought. There are very few partnerships by way of airlines or other services like Credit Cards. I put in a missing mile claim and the status remained “pending” for days before I decided to register an online complaint. The online error reporting system had a bug (irony!) and so I had to write a generic email. Someone actually replied to it though, saying it had been processed. I logged on to see that the claim showed “rejected” but the miles had been added! Well, I decided to not pursue the matter.

Jet Airways by far has the best internet presence and their online FF module is way better than the competition. There are many more partners and all the partnerships are linked on the site. When I clicked on “The Economist” link, it took me straight the page on the Economist site which allowed me to pay for a subscription through the Jet Airways alliance. However, sometimes too much of a good thing can backfire if it’s not thought through. The airline offers 500 bonus miles as incentive for online ticket bookings. Unfortunately, it gives these miles only on the basis of every PNR generated. This means that if I book a two-person return journey, I only get 500 miles. If I had booked each person’s one-way trip individually, I would make 2000 points since I would have generated 4 different PNRs. Jet, has thus incentivized inefficiency in their system, not to mention that every PNR generated has a cost associated with it. I guess they didn’t bank on people with lots of time to waste and a point to prove such as Yours Truly but with the internet, it doesn’t take much time and effort to beat the system.

Anyway, I hope the consolidation in the air leads to better services for FFs because now more than ever, loyalty is going to determine bottom lines!