Southwest, AirTran, JetBlue, Ryan Air (Europe), IndiGo (India) – these are all low cost airlines that are focussed on giving cheap airfares with no frills. One of the frills they do not offer is a decent Frequent Flyer program. In some cases there is no program at all. I hence do not fly them. As I mentioned in my article on Maximizing Airline Mile earnings (Part 3 in my series on Economics of Airline Miles), if you have a goal to maximize the airline miles you earn, you should only fly on airlines that earn you miles. Low cost airlines, like Southwest, do not allow you to do so.
Frequent Flyer Programs:
Southwest does have a frequent flyer program called Rapid Rewards. It is actually a very aggressive program in terms of the rewards it gives. My issue with it is that it limits me to flying only Southwest. I can only earn on Southwest and only redeem on Southwest. Southwest is not the part of any alliance and does not have any airline partners. That is a problem. There are other airlines, even major airlines like Virgin Atlantic, Alaskan Airlines and Emirates that are not in any alliance, but they have an extensive network of airline partners. You can fly any of those partners and earn miles on their program. You also have ability to redeem on some of these partners. As there is usually limited or even no earning of Status Miles under such partnerships, I recommend avoiding flying these airlines too. But to me they are a better option than the low cost airlines that do not have a full featured frequent flyer program.
The justification these low cost airline have for their lack of a full featured frequent flyer program, is the low cost of their tickets. First of all, price is a feature of the route, the passenger load and seats sold at the time at which you purchase your ticket. On highly competitive routes with decent passenger loads, such as say New York to San Francisco (JFK-SFO), you can always get good prices, unless you buy at the very last minute. On the other hand, routes as Washington, DC to Charlotte, NC (DCA-CLT) are always expensive. It is also a proven fact that whenever a low cost airline like Southwest introduces a new route, all the other full featured airlines that already fly that route, drop their prices to match. VirginAmerica caused routes such as Washington, DC to San Francisco (IAD-SFO) to go to a perennial low. So, when looking at the price, you need to look at what you are getting in return. Other than a comfortable, safe flight, which any decent airline out there will give you, are you earning anything towards a reward from the airline in the future? If you are earning, how Rapidly can you add up the miles towards the Reward? (No pun intended). Are you limited to just one airline or a whole set of airlines that you can fly to continue earning that reward?
At the end of the day, I look at it as a matter of having freedom of choice. I like to have the option to fly multiple airlines and still be able to accumulate miles on one program. Also I want to be able to have a choice of multiple airlines I can redeem my awards on.
Elite Status Miles:
Along the same lines, such airlines do not allow you to earn Elite Status by flying any other airline. If they even do have an Elite Status available thru their program, you can only achieve Elite Status by flying the airline itself. Airlines like Southwest and JetBlue do have a limited Elite Status program. Achieving Elite Status here is achieved based on the revenue spent on the airline, not on miles or segments flown. I compared Southwest’s frequent flyer program’s Elite Status with traditional full featured programs’ Elite Status in my article on the What and How of Elite Status.
If you really want freedom of choice, having a Frequent Flyer program from an airline that is in an Airline Alliance is your best option. I have discussed this in detail in my article describing Airline Alliances. It is the only way to have a large set of airlines (25 for Star Alliance!) that you can earn and redeem miles on; that you can fly and earn Elite Status on and that recognize your Elite Status when you fly any of the airlines in the Alliance.
In conclusion, I have nothing against frill-free airlines like SouthWest, JetBlue, etc. They have an excellent product that has a viable customer base. Quite frankly, it is only some of these low cost airlines that are making a profit in this market. My issue is with the lack of a full featured Loyalty Program. As a Frequent Flyer, I value my Elite Status, my Award Tickets and my Upgrades. When I fly, I want to be rewarded for my loyalty.
Agree or disagree? Leave a comment.
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