Power Report: The sky-high cost of being a loyal airline customer

28 June 2015 - 01:48 By Megan Power


No matter the size of our bank balance, few of us can resist a freebie. Which is why so many of us sign up for loyalty programmes. And why not? If consumers can reap rewards while shopping as normal, it's a no-brainer.Well, not always. A lot depends on the benefits, cost and simplicity of the so-called loyalty programme. Some are far more attractive than others, and consumers need to be selective.Programmes range from the friendly collect-10-stamps-and-get-your-next-treat-on-us type (beauty salons and juice bar favourites) to the far more complex ones (think medical schemes), which not only charge you a fee to sign up (along with most banks) but also require real effort from members to reap the full benefit.In-between are those free supermarket/bookshop/pharmacy programmes where consumers swap accumulated points for cash, vouchers or money off your next purchase. Zero effort, nice returns.story_article_left1And then there are the notorious frequent-flyer programmes.I recall finally earning enough points on an airline loyalty programme a few years ago to get a free domestic flight. The reward excluded taxes and airport charges, so by the time I'd paid those fees, it had cost me more than if I'd bought a full-fare ticket on another airline. Allegiance gone.Reader Craig France, who holds a Voyager credit card, feels even more betrayed. After reaching his annual threshold of more than R160000 on his credit card in April last year, he received "a wonderful letter" saying that he qualified for a free international companion ticket.So he planned a trip to Paris in July to celebrate his wife's 50th birthday - knowing full well that the freebie excluded taxes.The total for the two tickets came to R24298. This included R15047 for his full-fare economy ticket, R5812 for his wife's taxes and R3439 for his wife's ticket from Frankfurt to Paris (SAA doesn't fly to Paris direct).But then he discovered that Air France, at full fare for both tickets, cost a total of R19220.France tried to cancel his ticket (which he'd had to book before claiming the companion freebie) but was told he'd get no refund. So he was forced to stick with SAA."It has cost me R5078 to be loyal to SAA and Voyager," said France. "A great loyalty reward programme."story_article_right2To add insult to financial injury, SAA took almost three months to respond to France's complaint. Finally, 10 days ago, it said it was unable to "compensate or appease" him.So how does SAA explain this unrewarding situation? Quite simply. The companion ticket is aimed at corporate travellers - those whose flights are "sponsored" by their companies.SAA spokesman Tlali Tlali said: "The value of the companion ticket to a large majority of our membership base is extremely high, because they can leverage their corporate/business travel and utilise this benefit to travel with a companion."This specific offering was developed as a value proposition primarily for corporate travellers ... by offering companion tickets when members are booked in one of the published business class fares, or selected economy class published fares (Y, B, M, K and H)," he said."However, there is a section of our membership base which utilises the companion ticket for leisure travel."So, under the circumstances such as Mr France's, the value proposition of the companion ticket could be seen as less significant and unattractive."But France had booked in W class, the lower end of economy, which wasn't on the list.Then SAA changed its story, apologising for "any confusion" its initial response had caused.Said Tlali: "The specific booking class restriction is no longer a requirement. A customer can book any available revenue booking class and their companion must be booked in the same revenue booking class."mini_story_image_vleft1He said France had possibly obtained "a very deeply discounted quote" from another airline at a time when the same discounted classes on SAA were unavailable.France, who has again reached his spend threshold for this year, has just received another companion ticket offer.His advice to other Voyager members?"If you receive a free companion ticket offer - burn it."But SAA is hardly the only culprit. Qatar Airways business-class flyer Neville Glasser hit major turbulence recently when trying to use his accumulated miles for an upgrade.Qatar's national airline required that he first buy his two economy tickets to London for next January, before it would check upgrade availability.As it turned out, there were no upgrade seats available for his requested dates - nor for three days on either side."To add insult to injury, I now have to pay a penalty of $100 [about R1200] a seat to cancel my economy-class tickets," said Glasser, who flies with Qatar about four times a year."It is simply inconceivable that seats are not upgradable seven months in advance."These so-called loyalty programmes are nothing but false advertising and blatant scams," he said.The airline, which responded late to my e-mails, said it needed to investigate the matter before commenting.sub_head_start Contact Megan Power sub_head_endE-mail: consumer@sundaytimes.co.zaFollow Megan on Twitter: @Power_ReportTune in to PowerFM 98.7's 'Power Breakfast' (DStv audio channel 889) at 8.50am on Monday to hear more from MeganPlease note: Other than in exceptional circumstances, readers sending me complaints must be willing to be identified and photographed.

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