It wasn’t until I arranged our Christmas plans that I truly realised just how addicted to Airmiles I’ve become. We’re flying from London to Dublin to London to New York to Phoenix to Honolulu – then, three hours after landing, we’re doing the whole thing in reverse. Merry Christmas!! For those in the know, it’s called a tier point run, taking strategic flights to accrue maximum miles and status points to maintain my top tier frequent flyer status. As I explained to my husband, it may be tough doing all those flights, but the day after we get back, we’re flying from London to San Diego for a 5 day holiday over New Year, so we’ll recover from the gruelling schedule in no time. So to get over almost 3 days of non-stop flying, I’ll take another 11 hour flight! I consider myself a sane and rational man (for the most part), so how exactly did I end up booking this trip, together with 43 other flights during 2016? Or more importantly for marketeers and customer experience gurus, what exactly can you do to make your customers as obsessive about your product as I am about airline champagne and frequent flyer Airmiles? Here’s 4 tongue-in-cheek thoughts & suggestions.
1.Is it all about the perks & status? – The first time you open the package with a shiny new airline status card, you feel excited, a certain sense of smugness and achievement, and a dollop of anticipation about how different your future flying experience will be. As you fly more often, your status increases (lounge access, premium lounge access, priority security and boarding, etc.) But so do your expectations. When silver turns to gold, you already want platinum, and like any true addiction, you start to plan how you will attain the next shiny status. Initially, you focus tactically (do as many flights in business class on short haul routes), but as the addiction takes hold, you think strategically (my Honolulu trip) to attain and maintain your status. All the time, you are clocking up miles and planning ever more exciting getaways. In reality, it’s very little to do with the airline, and much more to do with the personal sense of achievement and expectation. If a more generous frequent flyer programme were to come along, I’d switch in the blink of an eye. So rather than it being about the airlines making me feel special, it’s about the emotional outcome I gain.
2. Am I a “wannabe” pilot or air steward? – I love airports (I remember as I child going to the local airport to watch planes take off.) I love airplanes, too, especially when I’m travelling at the front of the cabin with a flat bed and champagne on tap. I did wonder to myself whether I should work in the aviation industry since I spend so much of my personal time and money there. I quickly realised that whilst it’s important to do something that you love, there is also a risk that your love could be tainted by having to do the thing you love day, in day out. I definitely don’t want to fly the plane (I can barely drive a car), and I certainly wouldn’t want to be serving customers like me as a job, so the addiction is definitely not related to working in aviation. I admire and respect those who do massively, but I much prefer being a customer.
3. The experience is always out of this world? – For any frequent flyer, there’s been out of this world flights, and there’s been flights from hell (I always seem to get a small child screaming behind me.) The variance in experience is probably the most frustrating part of frequent flying. It’s all to easy to slip into the DYKWIA mode (“do you know who I am?”), picking on minor issues and critiquing every aspect. Its a shame that when you do send a thank you email to an airline that you don’t even get an acknowledgement., At the other extreme, complaint handling for aviation is still in the dark ages (Customer Relations functions designed to block and slow the process at every turn.) The “hard product” (plane, seats, catering) is pretty fixed, but where the difference in experience happens is the crew. Check-in, security, lounge, on-board and the many teams behind the scenes (baggage handler, air traffic control, etc) really make or break it for me. Service recovery from the customer facing staff is utterly unpredictable, but when done right, makes me squeal in anticipation for my next flight. The people definitely have a big influence on my Airmiles addiction.
4. They drove me to it! – When you are truly hooked, you seek out other like minded folk; firstly for advice – in the form of frequent traveller blogs – then communities – my personal favourite is www.flyertalk.com. Amongst “friends” you feel “normal”, you watch them do wacky things and think “I can do that”. The airlines wisely watch but rarely intervene in the frequent and diverse conversations, overseen by the most venerable of travellers. It’s fun to share, we inspire and draw inspiration and crucially for the airlines, the fans drive each other to book more and fly further.
Addiction is contagious. Not only my husband, but a number of friends and colleagues are on the slippery slope to Airmiles addiction. Just last weekend, a dear friend flew from London to Jersey to London to Madrid to the Canary Islands, then did the same flights in reverse just to attain the next level of airline loyalty status. And there in lies the learning – the product is the baseline, the service experience is the topping, but the magic dust that makes your experience most sticky is quite simply fans & advocates!
I’d like to thank Finnair, British Airways, One World Alliance & Virgin Atlantic for my obsession. Whilst I’d be a darn sight richer without this hobby, I’d also be a lot less travelled, so cheers to your product, people and most of all, my fellow Airmiles addicts!