Dear British Airways, Your Rewards Program Is Rotten

Dear British Airways,

For the past 12 years I have been an expatriate of the UK. Flying home to see family and friends is an annual event. The trip is the great source of fond memories which include meeting my nieces for the first time, a walk on the beach with my mum, a game of golf with my dad and a day out in London with friends.

My airline of choice for this travel for many years has been British Airways. I heart BA and know when the plane door closes, I can literally sit back relax and enjoy a safe ride home pampered with all the quintessentially English trimmings – friendly, attentive and well spoken cabin crew, sandwiches with the crusts cut off, British tabloid newspapers and bacon sandwiches for breakfast!

Given I’m not currently traveling internationally in my role I also enjoy being able to accrue miles with the BA credit card from Chase and agree with the marketing on BA.com,

“Avios are so easy to collect your next reward could be just around the corner.”

Well I agree with the first part – Avios are easy to collect. Rewards being just around the corner… not so much. Redeeming travel on the day, week or even month one wants to travel is difficult if not impossible. I’m not saying it can’t be done but difficult is a good way to describe the experience. I must commend your marketing team for their creativity given what they’re working with:

“Reward flights are paid for using your Avios, plus a cash amount for taxes, fees and carrier charges. You can book them with British Airways and our oneworld partners wherever there is availability.”

This sounds great! The reality of this suitably ambiguous statement is quite different.  Taxes, fees and carrier charges aside, “Reward flights are paid” implies a similar standing to paid travel and the caveat, “wherever there is availability” is grossly misleading. My assumption is “availability” means a seat is available on the flight. However in practice it appears to mean something very different. In fact I’ve come to learn that rewards travel on British Airways is not equal to paid travel at time of reservation.

Take the example below. There is “availability” in every travel class on flights from SFO to LHR from 28th September – 04th October:

Outbound-paid

However the same search when booking with Avios points reveals a very different picture. On the same day of travel (Thu 2nd Oct 2014) there are “no flights available”. On the days surrounding the selected travel day a friendly ‘check availability’ label is used. Click on any of these days and it seems this label is synonymous with no availability. In fact, at the time of writing, the entire month of August, September and October have no flights available to book travel with Avios points:

Outbound-availability

Let’s assume however I strike it lucky and find a seat to fly out, the odds of finding an inbound seat within the duration of a typical vacation 5-14 days appear to be worse than being hit by an astroid – my experience often shows a return seat 4-5 weeks out… But this is not news to you. I’m pretty confident you’ve heard all this before as there are 2 handy tools promoted alongside the day selector (shown above) suggests. The first one is labelled, “View calendar of BA availability” and shows no availability during the period:

view-availability-tool

The second is promoted with the teaser, “To see up to a years availability on British Airways flights and find out where in the world you could travel to  with your Avios, try our Explorer Map.”  Click on this link and voila a comprehensive list of seats available… or maybe not, not today or yesterday, maybe tomorrow…

Explorer tool fail

So there you have it, a wonderfully orchestrated example of how to fail your customers and insert frustration into the start of a trip filled with lasting memories. If you remember one thing from this note please let it be that booking a trip is of equal if not more important than the trip itself. Your relationship with me starts at the time I am thinking about booking, which is long before I arrive at the airport and get on one of your pristine planes. My experience of British Airways is based on every single interaction I have with you and when it comes to booking with rewards you really dropped the ball.

I realize running an airline is an expensive business – 30MM GBP per day in operational costs according to your annual report – and acknowledge comparing your travel rewards program to that of a hotel maybe grossly unfair – however I can’t help but point you at the SPG program from Starwood as the gold standard of travel rewards offering:

  • zero blackout dates – if a room is available you can book with rewards
  • upgrades on arrive if rooms are available

The fundamental difference is reward bookings are treated the same as cash bookings. SPG members don’t have to jump through hoops to book with points – in fact quiet the opposite. Rewards bookings are easy and often celebrated with upgrades and bonus gifts such as points or free wifi. Incentivizing customers to reach a certain level and gifting rewards that are literally impossible to use in everyday life is a rotten way to run a rewards program.

Yours sincerely,

 

Tarquin