Travel News

Should budget airlines have loyalty schemes?

Simon Calder’s Travel

Airline frequent-flyer schemes can be powerful drivers of behaviour. At Orlando airport, while waiting for a Virgin Atlantic plane to Manchester, I got talking to a couple of business people who were also going to Manchester. But they were not on my flight. Instead, they were booked via Heathrow on British Airways.

Their journey would take about four hours longer, burn more fuel, involve more stress and uncertainty and make them wearier. So why were they doing it? Because of the precious points that promise future “free” flights and the maintenance of elite airline status.

Frequent-flyer schemes can distort rational choices and trigger suboptimal behaviour on the part of the traveller, damaging the environment and the business that is paying for the trip. That’s why some airlines love them.

A top executive for a budget airline once described the British Airways Executive Club as “the crack cocaine of frequent-flyer schemes”. Yet this week, the chief executive of Ryanair, Michael O’Leary, dismissed the prospect of Europe’s biggest budget airline joining the loyalty fray.

“If you want something loyal, buy a dog,” he urged me. “If you want the lowest air fares in Europe, fly Ryanair.”

But would you fly more with budget airlines if they rewarded your loyalty with free flights? Britain’s biggest budget airline, easyJet, offers a subscription scheme with benefits for frequent flyers.

I cheerfully pay £170 for my annual membership of easyJet Plus. The perks include a free large cabin bag; the ability to choose the best seats on the aircraft at no additional charge; and, probably the most useful aspect, a “fly home early” option on routes with multiple daily flights.

Next Wednesday, 1 May, for example, easyJet has three evening flights from Belfast International to Gatwick. I will always book the last one of the day (which is usually cheaper than the others). On the day, if I am able to travel back earlier, it is easy to switch with a call to a dedicated number.

All other things being equal, these benefits would persuade me to book with easyJet. But in aviation, things are very rarely equal. For example, for my trip from London to Venice this week, Ryanair had by far the best fare.

When comparing easyJet and British Airways, the cabin baggage allowance for easyJet Plus members works out the same as BA’s offer for all…

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