The answer to this question was revealed in the 2014 Mile Satisfaction Survey, which was commissioned by MileCards.com, a website that allows users to compare travel credit cards based on where they want to fly.
The survey measured customers’ perceptions of the loyalty programs for the largest U.S. carriers, asking 1,600 frequent-flier members who say they’re actively collecting airline points in hopes of redeeming them for an award.
According to the survey, here is what frequent-flier loyalty program members want:
Upfront warning about changes
Members know that award prices can change over time, but they want airlines to be direct and upfront about those changes. Most airlines choose to rely on members finding out about changes via the press, niche online forums, or small print on their websites, with little or no proactive communication to all members about coming rule changes. This leads to dissatisfaction and disengagement – more members said they trust their banks and cable companies to deliver on promises than their airline mile programs.
Transparent, easy-to-use websites
With 90% of awards booked online, transparent online award booking tools are mandatory for satisfaction. Delta and US Airways had the least friendly websites for award booking and were at the bottom of overall member satisfaction. US Airways’ site hides booking options via partner airlines altogether (American Airlines flights are an exception), while Delta’s online award calendar is notorious for not being able to accurately display partner availability.
The irony of the survey’s results is that US Airways Dividend Miles members who use the phone to ask about awards on its partner airlines will find some of the best values available today in a mileage program, offering many awards at lower prices than other programs. But these are all hidden from its website, so members who don’t call miss out on them. More partner options displayed means more options for consumers, and higher satisfaction, though possibly more cost for airlines to deliver awards.
Fairer fee structures
The lowest-ranked program in the survey, US Airways Dividend Miles, has the most fees of the programs studied. For example, it will levy a $25 fee for domestic awards and $50 for Hawaii and International awards just for the privilege of booking the award, even when done online and well in advance of travel. No other program incurs such a fee, and there is an additional fee for booking on the phone. American Airlines’ partner British Airways levies large fuel surcharges that can be in the hundreds of dollars, but the exact amount for a given trip is not made clear until a member gets near the final stages of booking. Southwest, the leading program in the survey, levies no fees for award travel. Members can even change or cancel their award with no fee penalty.
Saver level availability
The programs with the lowest satisfaction – Delta and US Airways – each use a 3 tier pricing grid for awards – Low, Medium, and High, versus American and United which use a simpler 2-tier grid of Saver and Anytime style awards. This matters to the 50% of program members who only want to book awards at the lowest ‘Saver’ level, and having 3 tiers tends to result in fewer awards available at the Saver level.
Southwest bases award prices on the cash price of tickets, but has wide availability of its ‘Wanna Get Away’ tier, which offers nearly 50% more value per point than the average domestic award offered by the global carriers.
Here are some of the survey’s other takeaways:
Overall, a slight majority of frequent-flier program users — 53% — said they were generally satisfied with their primary carrier’s loyalty program and that they’d recommend it to a friend.
Nearly half (45%) of those surveyed say they earn more points from credits cards and other ground-based promotions than they do from actually flying.
Awards that cost more miles or points than expected was by far the biggest frustration among the survey’s respondents. That was cited by half the respondents—far more than the No. 2 complaint: suddenly changing rules.
Nearly a quarter (23%) of frequent-fliers surveyed say they do not “trust” their mile programs to deliver on their promises. That level of distrust was higher than those expressed for cable providers (21%), banks (11%) and car insurance firms (9%). Hidden fees and sudden rule changes were cited as the primary drivers for fliers' distrust of airline programs.
The airline with the top satisfaction rating: Southwest, with 62% of the airline’s Rapid Rewards members saying in the survey that they’d be “very likely” to recommend that carrier’s program to others.
United is the carrier that had the highest number of frequent-fliers (40%) say they go out of their way to fly that airline so that they can earn miles.
The lowest satisfaction rating in the survey was US Airways, with 43% saying they’d recommend the program. Delta — at 49% — was the only other carrier with a favorable rating from less than half of the respondents.
Delta’s website deemed most difficult: Delta SkyMiles members were most likely to say a difficult-to-use award booking website is a source of frustration.