I started writing this post in the taxi on the way home from my last flight. I had just spent 60 hours, in economy, over the last 5 weeks. I was tired and the post was a series of rants about British Airways. I decided to start again and instead of ranting, attempt to provide some constructive criticism. I am in no way expecting BA to read this or action it, but at least it’s out there and will hopefully make me feel marginally better about my recent experience.

I’m not picking on BA here. I know they are part of the oneworld alliance and are constrained in what they can offer. I’m sure most airlines have a similar problem. It’s just that BA happens to be my airline of choice, at least for the moment.

The problem starts here: British Airways loyalty scheme, like most air loyalty schemes, have two ways of collecting points. Tier points, for which you receive a small amount for each flight and which ultimately dictate your levels of blue, bronze silver or gold. And miles, which you receive based on the distance you fly. The more miles you collect, the more points you get. Points mean prizes, and you can exchange them for a lot of things including free flights and upgrades. If you travel a lot, tier points are invaluable. You want and need to be gold as it makes traveling easier and more comfortable.

Obtaining gold status is too difficult

I will make gold before my year is up but that is largely thanks to a very busy flying schedule and the fact one customer paid for a business class flight. To obtain gold you need to collect 1500 tier points within one year. To give you some examples of the tier points I’ve compiled this table of some of my flights:

If we were to use just one of the flights above as an example, the cheapest I could get to gold status is £14,630 resulting in an eye watering 440 hours in the air. That is equal to 105 minutes per day for every single business day of a calendar year.

There are of course ways around this, by doing mile runs for example. But in my opinion a system like this should be designed in such a way that you don’t have to cheat the system.

No upgrades

BA are notoriously tight on free upgrades. In the last 18 months I have had in excess of 20 long haul flights, mostly for business but a couple personal. In that time I received one upgrade, from economy to premium economy. And that only occurred because of a last minute change of plane to one which had 8 instead of 3 rows of premium economy.

Upgrading with points is only possibly up front and not at the airport. And only if there are reward seats available. The number of reward seats has little to no correlation to the number of unsold seats on the plane.

Not inspiring loyalty

Once you are gold you are loyal. You wouldn’t consider moving to another airline because it means starting again and your gold only lasts a year.

Until you have some airline status you don’t really know the benefits. I only started collecting 9 months ago despite the fact I’ve been travelling for work for the past three years.

For me, it feels like BA could inspire loyalty at an earlier stage than when the flyer is already gold status. The airline has all of the data they need for this. A smart analytics and predictive body of work could lead unimaginable amounts of loyalty at no real cost. Again, the data is there, it just needs to be manipulated better.

More on this later.

Cashing in on miles is difficult

As I mentioned earlier on, you can also collect points and exchange them for free flights and free upgrades.

Sounds great, right? Well there are a number of catches:

  • You can only upgrade or book free flights for flights which have reward seats available. They seem to be limited in number and are snapped up early. I tried to book a flight recently and the earliest I could book was September.
  • Upgrades can only be purchased in advance and not at the airport.
  • The plane could be half full but all of the reward flights are taken.
  • The method for finding reward flights is poor. There are two different websites and the mobile app. All of which return different results and all of them are quite confusing to use. God help you if you want to book a reward flight and use a companion voucher at the same time.
  • It ends up being too much hard to book a reward flight. As a result you find yourself with hundreds of thousands of miles and no way to spend them.

The Solution

Not one to detail a problem at leave it at that, I want to offer up some solutions to BA on how to make things better.

  • Early on in the status cycle, e.g. each time you level up, offer something which is only available with gold status. For example, when you hit bronze, offer first class lounge access for two on your next flight. It’s all very well stating the benefits of gold status but until the flyer experiences it, they don’t understand how it makes the flying experience better.
  • Recognise fast risers – if someone has hit silver in a short period, offer them one months gold membership from their next flight. Gain their loyalty earlier and get them hooked on your flying experience and brand.
  • Free upgrades!! There needs to be a correlation between the fullness of plane, the status and the predicted status of a customer. You’re already flying the plane to the destination, the cost of a better meal is a small price to pay for potential lifetime loyalty.
  • Finally it has to become easier to use your miles. I know this is not unique to BA as I have friends that have experienced the same issue for both AA and Virgin. However, the fact that everyone else’s system is broken is not an excuse to follow suit but an opportunity to be the best.

Conclusion

In this day and age a company has to stand out from the crowd, because there is always another company out there that could take your business. This is especially true in the airline industry where many airlines are sporting ageing fleets.

In the airline industry a fleet upgrade is often the first thing that comes to mind to achieve this. Better screens, WIFI on international flights and more comfortable seats make customers very happy. However the cost of this is astronomical and something which has to be done over many years. And as such it is imperative to gain and maintain loyal customers in-between fleet upgrades.

My challenge to BA and every other airline out there is to use the tools you already have to your advantage. You have the data – you just need to exploit it to the maximum. Loyalty brings predictable customer travel which in turn brings forecastable revenue. All of this will help accelerate the fleet upgrade, which is the ultimate prize for travellers. Don’t settle on being a flight operator, be the best!

That’s it — if nothing else I hope you enjoyed reading this. I certainly enjoyed writing it!

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