Can 4.2 million flyers be wrong?
Skift doesn’t usually write about travel industry awards because there are too many of them — and many of them lack transparency or real meaning to consumers. One of the rare exceptions is the Freddie Awards, which on Thursday evening were given out to the world’s top travel loyalty programs.
In the poll, 4.2 million frequent travelers worldwide ranked loyalty programs. The poll comes just as a few U.S. major airlines have overhauled their frequent flyer rewards. We were curious at the results: Would the move from a miles-flown to a revenue-based model make the legacy players less popular.
The short answer, it turns out, is no.
Winners list 2017
Awards for airlines in the Americas:
- Program of the Year — Southwest Airlines – Rapid Rewards
- Best Elite Program — American Airlines – AAdvantage
- Best Customer Service — Southwest Airlines – Rapid Rewards
- Best Redemption Ability — Southwest Airlines – Rapid Rewards
Awards for North American hotel operators were:
- Program of the Year — Marriott Hotels – Marriott Rewards
- Best Elite Program — Marriott Hotels – Marriott Rewards
- Best Customer Service — Marriott Hotels – Marriott Rewards
- Best Redemption Ability — Marriott Hotels – Marriott Rewards
Airlines, Europe and Africa:
- Program of the Year — Norwegian Air – Norwegian Reward
- Best Elite Program — Air France/KLM – Flying Blue
- Best Customer Service — Aeroflot – Aeroflot Bonus
- Best Redemption Ability — Aeroflot – Aeroflot Bonus
Hotels, Europe and Africa
- Program of the Year — Accor Hotels – Le Club Accorhotels
- Best Elite Program — Starwood – Starwood Preferred Guest
- Best Customer Service — Accor Hotels – Le Club Accorhotels
- Best Redemption Ability — Accor Hotels – Le Club AccorHotels
For the Middle East and Asia/Oceania, V Australia, IHG and Accor were the big winners.
- Program of the Year — EL AL – Matmid Club
- Best Elite Program — Virgin Australia – Velocity
- Best Customer Service — EL AL – Matmid Club
- Best Redemption Ability — Virgin Australia – Velocity
Have recent changes not sunk in?
Despite American Airlines having copied United and Delta in moving to a revenue-based loyalty program, American’s loyalty program has once again won out as the best elite program for the year.
It’s possible that American, the granddaddy of frequent flyer programs, benefits from residual feelings of goodwill towards a legacy program with a reputation of having been relatively generous in the past.
A key point: As of voting time, no flyer has yet lost status for failing to hit revenue requirements. (For details on the changes, see “How Earning Airline Elite Status Will Change In 2017” and a first-person report on how the changes affected his own status by Grant Martin, author of Skift’s business traveler newsletter.)
American may also benefit from a lack of competition for anything better. It’s not obvious to some frequent flyers which program would obviously and clearly be doing better for elites in the Americas than American.
A top gripe: elite perks have either degraded or gotten harder to obtain, on average. And for average travelers, miles have generally lost value over time, as Skift’s aviation reporter Brian Sumers pointed out earlier this month.
What is striking is that American falls out of the top four generally in other categories and that its U.S. peers Delta and United don’t really filter to the top, either. That may be a danger signal for the legacy network carriers about the sustainability of their programs. If airlines water down their programs too much, they risk losing their most lucrative customers. (U.S. frequent flyer programs are far more profitable than is widely known, as Sumers reported recently.)
In Europe, the most notable news is that low-cost carrier Norwegian’s program has displaced Air France-KLM’s one as most popular overall.
On the hotel front, the most remarkable development may be that Hyatt was displaced by Marriott as having the most popular program for elite (read: frequent) travelers. Marriott’s program is also undergoing changes as it aborbs, and learns from, its recently acquired hotel portfolio, Starwood.
Why pay attention to the Freddies? The non-profit awards stand out from other awards for loyalty and passenger or guest experience that we’ve seen in the travel industry.
A key difference is that they make a distinction between the best frequent flyer program for average travelers and the best one for elite travelers. That distinction is significant, as Martin has noted. General travelers tend to favor loyalty programs that have the widest volume of bookable flights and rooms, while frequent business travelers tend to prefer spiffs like upgrades at higher status tiers.
Another plus is the effort that the Freddies take to preserve the validity of the voting process.
That said, the survey is not a scientifically measured poll of travelers that’s statistically representative of elite or general travelers. Instead, the sheer size of the voting is its main claim to authority. For a full list and explanation of methodology, visit the Freddie Awards site.
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Photo credit: The non-profit Freddie Awards are named after the late Sir Freddie Laker, who attracted fame (and a knighthood in the United Kingdom) for pioneering low-cost air travel across the Atlantic in the 1970s. Freddie Awards