Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

13 December 2013

So, it’s official. American Airlines and US Airways legally completed their merger this week. Thus begins the long, arduous process of making the two airlines become the “new” American. The US Airways brand will disappear – I flew it last week and, frankly, it seemed as though the brand was just waiting to die. The angry, bullish flight attendants and lack of announcements from the flight deck were clear signs that no one truly cared about the passengers.

In fairness, it’s easy to understand what has eaten away at these once-great airline brands. But what I find most frustrating is the fact that the airlines promise something far different on billboards and television than they actually deliver at the airport or on board. Sure, we are lured by the prospects of upgrades, inflight WiFi, new fleets, new seats, waived bag fees and electric outlets but we are left with the hollow jolt of tiny peanut sacks, a cup of soda that’s mostly ice and 56k-like internet browsing.

Who else could get away with not delivering like this? That’s a fair question given that a good experience drives return business. Or does it? Airlines don’t breed loyalty: they force it.

There isn’t a day goes by when I don’t receive some sort of offer espousing the benefits of an airline co-branded credit card. They tell me that if I pay an annual fee I too can have the perks of the flying elite. After the bonus miles and the 25,000 additional miles I need to fly in order to qualify for any reasonable sort of elite status, I might one day get an upgrade.

With all of these offers floating around there is now a glut of undeserving status holders. This buying and selling of status has become one of the more infuriating things that frequent fliers now deal with. If you’ve earned your miles, like I have, then you’ve always felt just in accepting an early boarding call at your gate. Now, those early “elite status” calls include half the airplane. Standing with 80 other people doesn’t make one feel “elite”. Yet still I buy tickets on the same carrier hoping to get an upgrade and early boarding. And, again, I stand in a longer line, sit in a seat that doesn’t recline and spend hours waiting for my emails to load.

Some of the major US carriers seem set on a flight path toward flaccid loyalty programmes. While elite inflation is clearly a trend, it’s also an opportunity to be different. I would encourage those at the new American to give ample thought to what a new sort of loyalty programme might look like. Perhaps it keeps benefits in the hands of those who actually earn them. And maybe it doesn’t feel so much like a gun to your head when you’re buying your next ticket.

In fact, the ability to buy a ticket on a particular airline because you actually enjoy its service might just be the most elite privilege of all.

Tristan McAllister is Monocle's transport editor.

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