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The Changing Face of Airline Loyalty

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Having spent this week talking about Virgin America and their stellar Elevate program, we want to step back a little and take a look at the airline loyalty space at large. What we’ve noticed across the board: considering this has been an industry that has seen its fair share of turbulence over the past few years (record-high fuel costs, plunging budgets, a constant stream of bankruptcies), maintaining customer loyalty may be a challenge, but it’s a necessity to survive and to thrive.
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Loyalty programs provide airlines with an area of influence they can control. American Airlines pioneered this concept, and set the stage for loyalty programs in the late 1980s. These early programs focused around simplistic flyer rewards by tracking miles and rewarding frequent flyers with upgrades and free flights. The success was immediate and evident, and before long, airlines like Delta and United had jumped on the loyalty bandwagon.

Over the last 30 years, the loyalty landscape has evolved into multi-tier programs with rewards stretching far beyond upgrades and free flights. Attracting and retaining members is no longer a formulaic one-size fits all program: airlines must get creative to stay in the game. 

This summer, approximately 140,000,000 Americans have travel plans, with 22% using rewards from loyalty programs to finance those trips. According to an American Express finding, active loyalty participants have increased by 25% since 2011. This increase has contributed to an already competitive market, forcing airlines to discover new ways to innovate, paving a path for younger airlines like JetBlue and Virgin America to drive the industry toward new loyalty standards.

These newer players are disrupting the loyalty space with innovative programs giving older, more established programs like American Airlines’ AAdvantage a run for their money. The key difference with programs like JetBlue’s TrueBlue and Virgin’s Elevate is that they offer additional perks aside from the standard free checked baggage or priority boarding.

We discussed the building blocks of the Elevate program earlier this week, including a no blackout date policy, and the new Red-Silver-Gold tier system. But there are plenty of other highlights worth mentioning. Virgin’s offerings include chic lounges in select locations, enhanced social rewards, and to top it off, the “ultimate round-trip flight award”. The Elevate member who earns the most elite qualifying points between August 8, 2012 and August 7, 2013 will earn a sub-orbital space flight on Virgin Galactic. With the largest frequent flyer population of 1.8 million it is clear Virgin is doing loyalty right. It is unique perks like this that add a competitive edge to airlines willing to step outside of the traditional loyalty box.

The Aberdeen Group addressed this very issue in a recent report. They found that loyalty programs that incorporate mobile technology, engage consumers with social media, and implement a centralized cross-channel loyalty platform are more successful. When incorporating innovative ideas to these basic building blocks, customers are more likely to stick around and take advantage of such well-rounded offerings.

Fresh innovation drives industry forward. A steady stream of creative, technology driven advancements are increasingly important as consumers become more accustomed to loyalty perks and expectant of convenience and technological innovation. It takes robust, cutting-edge loyalty programs to shake things up and provide a unique experience worth returning for time and time again.

Read more about our work with Virgin America and the success of Elevate in our Customer Success Story, here. And keep up on all of the great things Virgin America is doing by following @virginamerica, @richardbranson, and @loyaltylab.

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