American Airlines gave CheapOair a vote of confidence in permitting the online travel agency to enroll AA Advantage members. Look for more online travel agencies to establish these types of deals.
In a program that began a little more than a week ago, when members of CheapOair Rewards book an American Airlines flight on CheapOair.com, they can enroll in AA Advantage without leaving CheapOair, and earn American Airlines points.
Glenn Cusano, co-CEO of CheapOair parent company Fareportal, told Skift Friday the idea for these loyalty signups emerged from a breakfast meeting with American Airlines executives a few months ago. He said it is the first time an online travel agency is helping with loyalty program enrollment for an airline.
In 2016, Expedia Group sister brands Expedia and Hotels.com got access to Red Lion loyalty program rates and began enrolling members in Red Lion’s Hello Rewards program on their sites, and providing the chain with more customer data than had been the usual online travel agency practice with hotels. Lack of access to customer data has always been a sticking point with hotels when their rooms get booked through online travel agencies.
In a move that got little or no publicity, Fareportal founder, majority owner and then-CEO Sam Jain in March stepped away from the company’s day to day operations and became executive chairman. Cusano, who had a 15-year career in finance at JetBlue before becoming Fareportal chief financial officer in 2019, then became Fareportal co-CEO, and Fareportal veteran Werner Kunz took on the CEO role.
Cusano said Fareportal changed strategy during the pandemic after notching a 5-year agreement with American Airlines in March, and a 3-year pact with United Airlines in August. Fareportal, which has CheapOair generating 70 percent of its bookings, now focuses on high-margin products such as packages, ancillaries and car rentals, he said.
CheapOair, which is privately held and intends to follow that path for now, is considered the third-largest U.S.-based online travel agency, and competes with Expedia and Priceline in the flights business. Fareportal is a leisure-oriented travel agency, and OneTravel, an online travel agency, fills out the company’s portfolio.
During the pandemic, Fareportal saw its bookings fall 90 percent. It laid off 40 percent of staff, closed a facility in India, moved its New York City headquarters, and went to an entirely work from anywhere structure, including for its call center workers in India.
Cusano said the company, which currently has a global staff of around 2,500 will stay fully remote for the remainder of 2021, but will mandate vaccinations when workers return to its offices.
During the pandemic, three of its employees in India died from Covid-19.
Cusano said CheapOair’s U.S. domestic bookings are approaching 2019 levels but haven’t rebounded to that level yet fully, and international bookings are still way down.
A former JetBlue finance official, Cusano said the company dropped a lawsuit against JetBlue in order to focus on better relations with its airline partners.
CheapOair, he said, will focus in the near future on improving its loyalty program and customer service.
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Photo credit: A member of a ground crew walks past American Airlines planes parked at the gate during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, U.S., April 5, 2020. Miguel Angel Sanz / Unsplash