Thursday, March 01, 2012

Air NZ Airpoints greatly devalued UPDATED

Whilst I usually write about global or NZ politics and bigger issues, this one is more personal to me, and is relevant to all those who fly Air NZ frequently, especially on either long haul trips or premium fares.  

If you've never flown long haul in business class, you shouldn't read this, as you wont understand how much of a hell hole economy class is in comparison.

Air NZ has decided to abolish airpoints upgrades.  In other words, from the end of May 2012, you will no longer be able to request an upgrade using airpoints for a fixed value.  To me, this was one of the greatest benefits of sticking to the programme, even though I live in the UK.

Loyalty programmes are seen across the retail world today, but the first common incarnation of them was with frequent flyer programmes.  They came about as airlines saw an advantage in giving their customers something back if they flew regularly, particularly as the most regular customers tended to be business travellers on more expensive fares. 

The easiest way to do this at the time was to give points or miles according to how far someone flew.  A trip from Auckland to London would provide much more "benefit" to the traveller than a trip from Auckland to Whakatane.   Given that travel in premium cabins generates far more revenue than in economy, especially discount economy, airlines would provide additional points for travel in the front, but may half or even quarter the return from travel in the cheapest seats.

The return for the airline was loyalty, because the frequent traveller could use the points to buy free flights for oneself and family, or to upgrade on leisure trips.  The value being that the high value fares would remain with that airline because those "perks" were worth it.  It has become commonplace for business travellers to pick airlines as much because of loyalty programmes as with standards of service or price (up to a point).

Air NZ saw a flaw in this from its point of view a few years ago in that miles (or km) flown did not reflect revenue it gained from travellers.  A cheap fare to London would earn much more in miles than a person paying the same for a few full fare domestic flights, so it shifted to Airpoints dollars.  This meant Airpoints Dollars earned reflected amounts that more closely related to fares spent in each class for different trips.   From the customer's point of view, it meant Airpoints dollars could be treated as currency and used to buy a ticket with the points as if they were money. 

Another layer was built on top of this by setting up status grades.  For Air NZ it meant that beyond a certain threshold of points earning in a year you could get Silver, Gold or Gold Elite status.  They represented rising layers of priority for service, but most importantly Gold and Gold Elite offered the ability to use Business Class check in and luggage allowance, regardless of class of travel, and access to all Business Class/Koru lounges regardless of class of travel, for ALL Star Alliance airlines (barring the odd exception).  In short, it meant that if you travelled enough especially in premium cabins, you could be treated as a Business Class customer at the airport no matter what class you book in - a major benefit.  In addition, you got priority when booking flights and requesting upgrades.

Upgrades have varied importance in difference airline markets.  Airlines obviously want people to pay to travel in premium economy and business class, because they would go out of business if people always upgraded.  However, the value of allowing upgrades for unsold seats was that it secured strong loyalty.  

Whilst some airlines, notably in the US, offer upgrades quite freely to their customers based on status (and as a result don't have particularly good premium cabins), Air NZ has never as a rule automatically upgraded customers as a right (occasionally it happens for operational reasons).  To get an upgrade on Airpoints you had to request it spending Airpoints dollars or use one of the two maximum "recognition" upgrade vouchers provided to customers with status.  The Airpoints dollars could either be spent on a standby upgrade (which would mean that it would not be confirmed until and unless it was clear the seats wouldn't be sold) or a confirmed upgrade (costing much more and requiring the traveller to not be in a discount fare category).  

Those with the highest status had the highest chance for an upgrade, which was understandable as these were people who spent the most on the airline, or its partners (which credited it with revenue) so were the ones who are the most HVCs (High Value Customers).  Those with plain old Jade status would only get an upgrade if there were seats remaining after Gold Elite, Gold and Silver travellers had had their upgrade requests allocated.  However, if you didn't spent Airpoints Dollars or a voucher on an upgrade, you wouldn't get one (unless circumstances were exceptional).

For a frequent traveller, the ability to spend Airpoints dollars on upgrades on Air NZ long haul flights was highly valued.  It meant that if given the choice between flying economy class on Singapore Airlines or Air NZ, Air NZ would win because there was a chance of spending Airpoints dollars to request an upgrade, whilst earning more Airpoints dollars than if one flew on Singapore Airlines.   Same in comparing Air NZ with Qantas in premium economy (and soon Cathay and Malaysian both of which will offer premium economy).

It meant that frequent long haul travellers in business class could avoid the hell of flying long haul economy if they had status and points to burn, and it kept those travellers loyal to Air NZ on those long haul business class flights.  It also meant premium economy gained a lot more value than it had before, as a "tolerable" compromise class which was worthwhile if there was a chance of upgrading to business from it. 

Air NZ in recent years has tweaked the programme to effectively seriously cut the ability of those paying discount fares to gain status points and Airpoints Dollars in any great volume.  Around 15% of Airpoints members have status, meaning most of those who are members don't fly much.  Those who do fly much (and I have had Gold Elite, Gold or Silver status continuously with Air NZ for 16 years now - currently Gold), the programme has some value.

So what has been announced in the last 24 hours has virtually destroyed that.

Airpoints upgrades are being abolished, in favour of an auction scheme for upgrades.  Instead of simply requesting an upgrade for a fixed value of Airpoints dollars, a traveller will have to make a bid using Airpoints dollars or cash.  It means that frequent flyers with status may be trounced by infrequent flyers with money.  It means that instead of paying for a ticket and simply requesting an upgrade, you have to think about participating in an auction for an upgrade.   

Frankly, I'd rather just request my upgrade and if I get it, lose a fixed sum, if not, just stay put than have all the fun of an auction.

It's simple Air NZ (and as a state owned carrier I can give a damn), the people who request airpoints upgrades are high value customers whose loyalty you ought to want to keep because they generate much of your revenue.   You've now told them that their loyalty, reflected in airpoints dollars, is actually worth precious little because they are being treated like everyone else.  

So loyalty will float off to Qantas/BA/Cathay in OneWorld or Emirates.

The commercial decision to do this appears transparent - airpoints upgrades were clearly too cheap, even though the means to earn airpoints had dropped dramatically.  The airline wants more airpoints burned, but in doing so it has meant that those who earn the most, don't get any recognition for their status.  It also wants money from people bidding on upgrades, but then it would have got that anyway from those people without the airpoints dollars to do it.

The alternatives are clear:
-  Refocus earning airpoints dollars as simply being a percentage of the price of the ticket.  This will mean those who pay the most earn the greatest redemption, providing a modest incentive to pay more.
-  Tighten up the process for assessing standby upgrades to reflect fares paid as well as status.  This also means loyalty is rewarded and it also provides an incentive to pay more.
-   Restrict airpoints upgrades to those with status only.  That also incentivises status and means people will strive for status to get preferential access to upgrades.

However, no.  Air NZ has decided to devalue something that many high value customers regard as worthwhile.

Rumour has it that Qantas sees this as a magic opportunity to offer Gold and Platinum status matches for Air NZ Golds and Gold Elites willing to make the switch.  Given Qantas and Jetstar can rival Air NZ on the Tasman, on most routes to Asia and Europe and the main trunk domestic routes, this could be costly for the airline.

It has the comfort of monopolies on most of its routes, but on the routes I use the most, it has plenty of competition (London-LA, London-Hong Kong-Auckland), including airlines now introducing premium economy.

If you're an airpoints member, then you ought to notice you've just lost some value from your account. If you're not, and you wonder why I'm worked up about it, then just consider me eccentric and a travel snob - because I am.

UPDATED:  Since I wrote this, two things have changed.  First, Air NZ has since announced that it is RETAINING Airpoints Upgrades of fixed value for its Gold Elites.  However, it appears that they will only be confirmed on checkin, when previously they could be confirmed up to one-year in advance.  It appears they will come AFTER OneUp upgrade bids, which means Gold Elites don't exactly get priority, but rather the crumbs.

Secondly, Air NZ's communications to its status Airpoints members have indicated that their OneUp upgrade bids will actually be higher value than those without status.  Silver Airpoints members will have a "premium value" layered on top of their bids, but it is unclear what this means (1%, 10%?).  Gold Airpoints members will have a premium value of "three times that of Silver", but again what does that mean?  Gold Elite is more again.

My chief concern about all of this is the lack of transparency.  I have never minded throwing in an airpoints upgrade request and taking my chances, knowing full well that my chances depend, in part, on my status.  Gold Elite's first, Golds second, Silvers third, everyone else below that.  However, to engage in an auction, where anyone can bid, with cash, not knowing what status means, just cheapens the experience.

I am happy for Air NZ to introduce OneUp upgrades.  Sure, feel free to flog off upgrades to anyone, if you have any left after those with status.  However, give your status Airpoints holders first preference.   Make the leap from economy to business premier much more expensive in Airpoints dollars terms than it is now (because that doesn't reflect the fare difference), but make sure status holders feel valued.


Unknown said...

I completely agree with you. Having struggled with Singapore Airlines notoriously tight FF benefits for too long I was seriously considering switching to Air NZ. Not now.

Anonymous said...

You speaketh the truth. I hope Air NZ are reading this.

Emirates and Qantas are about to eat Air NZ's lunch.

Anonymous said...

A by-product of this policy is that business premiere is full to the last seat and although I was holding gold status and a paid business class ticket, I was refused first food choice on several occasions. Generally speaking the service is great, the food below standard though and despite the young 777 300 ER fleet, seats start showing their age already and are not always the cleanest. I really like NZ but maybe they can somehow set their loyal customers somehow more apart.

Libertyscott said...

Anonymous - Yes the intention is to fill up the front cabins, which means sharing them with those who may neither have paid much for it, or have great loyalty.

I like NZ longhaul in Business Premier too, but I fear I am facing a year or so of burning out my Airpoints and Gold status whilst I shift over to OneWorld.

Dan said...

I just flew back to NZ with Singapore Airlines because of the OneUp stuff that was happening. I still *liked* AirNZ and I was hoping to add more points to my Airpoints via the Star Alliance agreement.

After asking Air NZ why my points weren't high enough, I had to go into the T's and C's to find this:
Singapore Airlines Flights in full economy earn Airpoints Dollars at the discount economy level.

I have had enough. Sorry Air New Zealand, you are turning into something miserable.

Anonymous said...

And it gets better. Forget complementary upgrades being useable. Even with a Gold status, on a full flight you have zip chance of getting it applied. One-Ups take majority allocations and priority.

Libertyscott said...

Anonymous: I've found that One Up do take the majority but if recognition upgrades are submitted before the OneUp threshold (7 days) there is inventory saved to allocate those. However, it is a mess, I'd rather it just went to fixed bidding with priority given to status