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COVID-19

Airlines are tweaking frequent-flyer programs to keep customers loyal after lockdown

Jack Stewart May 5, 2020
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Airlines haven't had to pay much attention to loyalty programs in recent years because demand for flying has been high. That's going to change. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
COVID-19

Airlines are tweaking frequent-flyer programs to keep customers loyal after lockdown

Jack Stewart May 5, 2020
Heard on:
Airlines haven't had to pay much attention to loyalty programs in recent years because demand for flying has been high. That's going to change. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

There’s news United Airlines will cut 30% of management jobs in October, and a report from Reuters says about 30% of United pilots maybe “displaced.”

At a time that few are flying, the airlines are still trying to find ways to keep their most lucrative customers engaged. It’s about frequent-flyer programs.

Customers like Jasmine Mazyck are the reason why airlines have frequent-flyer programs.

“I am extremely loyal to American Airlines,” Mazyck said.

Her typical travel for her job, as an entertainment publicist, is enough to earn her high enough status to get perks — free checked bags, early boarding and lounge access. She took eight flights in the first couple of months of this year, before movement restrictions around COVID-19 kicked in.

Now, she’s worried she might lose her status.

“Every year you start over, and you have to reaccumulate your points, so it is extremely difficult this year because a lot of us are on hold from traveling,” Mazyck said.

These programs are important to business travelers, who are, in turn, crucial to airlines as they pay for those profitable business class seats, says Samuel Engel with the aviation group at consultancy ICF.

“You could be looking at a group of people who are 2% of the airlines flyers, and over 15% or even 20% of their revenue,” Engel said.

The last thing airlines want is to give travelers any excuse to rethink their favorites. American, United, Alaska, Southwest and Delta say they’ll extend elite status until, at least, into 2021, and make it easier to qualify this year.

Airlines haven’t had to pay much attention to their loyalty programs over the last few years, because they haven’t had to fill empty seats. Demand, and profits, have been high.

Gary Leff of the View from the Wing, which covers frequent travel, says that could change now, if travelers are slow to come back.

“It’s going to be a rejuvenation of frequent-flyer programs, because fundamentally they’re the primary marketing vehicle that travel providers have, and marketing’s going to be a lot more important in the coming environment,” Leff said.

Airlines and passengers will have to wait to see what air travel looks like as movement restrictions are lifted.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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