What actual benefits you do have are getting harder to manage as well. Delta no longer publishes rewards charts and United’s is not easy to use, creating a labyrinthine world of mileage redemption for consumers. In many cases, fliers must search for fares within a search app the same way they would if they were making a regular online reservation: by dates, gateways and other filters without benefit of a transparent chart that would indicate point levels, best dates, destination tiers and other planning tools. As we go to press, American has just announced that its AAdvantage program is following suit, moving to a revenue model as of Aug. 1.
“Basically what is going on now is these programs each manage between 80 and 100 million members, so the airlines are saying benefits and perks should go to customers that earn them – the more you pay, the more you will get back,”says Harteveldt.“Many fliers are saying fare does not define my loyalty, my frequency does. But airlines are saying no, not so any more. And there is a huge rift out there with travelers who feel they have been loyal in sticking with [their chosen airlines] through downturns and bankruptcies and other changes, and feel the airlines have turned their back on them. And that is a legitimate emotion.”
The new revenue-based system – which is already in motion at United, Delta and Southwest – has already snagged some big losers. The occasional traveler can’t rack up enough points to get traction before points disappear, and the frequent business traveler who’s restricted to budget tier purchasing policies and whose elite or platinum perks on legacy carriers will no longer garner automatic upgrades and other benefits. Managing benefits is becoming a crapshoot that may be best left to apps like ExpertFlyer rather than the airlines.