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Air India has worked at a record pace to develop and roll out a new version of its loyalty program, with huge changes for customers.

Air India’s ongoing transformation is one of the most closely watched developments in the aviation world – and rightfully so. The recently privatized airline, which serves a country of 1.4 billion people, is playing catch-up with its international peers. 

Speaking last month at the Skift India Summit, the airline’s CEO, Campbell Wilson, compared the overhaul of the 92-year-old carrier to a launching a start-up.

Alongside new planes, IT software, and training, a major area for improvement is its Flying Returns loyalty scheme. Although it celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, the frequent flier platform feels stuck in a different era altogether, having last been updated in 2012. 

Air India’s new program goes live today and it’s a massive improvement. Here are six key changes for earning and redeeming those all-important reward points:

1. Move to value-based earnings

The airline previously granted points based on the distance traveled. Air India will now award points to customers depending on the fare paid. This brings the scheme in line with other international carriers. In the U.S., the system is already in place with airlines such as JetBlue, Southwest, Delta, and United. 

2. Points never expire, but conditions apply

Under the old scheme, any unredeemed points expired three years after they were earned. In the new program, the airline will keep the points alive, so long as the member flies with Air India at least once every 24 months.

3. ‘Cash + Points’ format introduced

This is a great option for customers who don’t have enough points to earn a completely free ticket. It works by part-paying the price of the fare with miles and topping up the balance in cash. This should reduce the likelihood of miles going to waste.

4. Last-seat availability

One of the common complaints with airline loyalty pricing is the limited number of seats available for redemptions. To help address this, Air India is moving to a hybrid model.

In economy, every seat will be bookable through points. The number of points needed will increase as the date of travel gets closer.

5. Better value award chart 

A current bugbear for many Air India frequent fliers is the higher number of points needed for redemptions compared to other carriers. Now, Air India is benchmarking itself against its peers, and the numbers look much better. 

For example, on India’s busiest domestic route, Mumbai to Delhi economy class redemptions will now be available from 5,000 points, instead of 10,080 points. Even on international flights, prices have been cut.

For instance, on Delhi to New York JFK, redemptions start at 62,000 points compared to 80,000 points in the earlier program. United Airlines, which competes on the route (albeit serving Newark), charges anywhere between 50,000 to 125,000 points using a dynamic-pricing model for each economy seat. 

6. Star Alliance redemptions go online 

Last but not least, Air India has also implemented the ability for online redemptions of Star Alliance partner awards. This is a project that was due to be completed many years ago during the company’s state ownership. 

With easier, and often cheaper ways to redeem Air India points, you might be wondering how to earn them. The airline has been working hard in recent months to create a vast ecosystem of earning partners. Air India says it currently has around 50 members, including credit card providers and luxury hotel chains. It aims to triple this number in the near future.  

Air India Loyalty Cards 2024
Image credit: Air India

Air India Simplifies Loyalty Status

The airline’s loyalty program is known as being the toughest in India to achieve status. In theory, a customer could travel the same route 40 times a year and still not make it to the silver level. Good news – as a part of the revamp, the status tiers have been vastly simplified. Here are five key developments:

  1. Tiers renamed: As a part of the simplification exercise, Air India has moved away from the long-form names, including the Maharaja Club, which used to denote its top tier. Now, Air India’s four loyalty levels will simply be known as Red, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. 
  2. Easier to earn status: Air India has dropped the requirement to become a status holder in the airline’s program by 40% across all three status tiers. This development is combined with the move to value-based earnings. Air India has also added a new flight count metric. In essence, this means those who are frequent travelers but not very high spenders on the airline will also qualify for status, rewarding loyalty in the true sense.
  3. Star Alliance membership gets valued: Air India has also left the door open to qualifying with other partner airlines of Star Alliance. It says to achieve Air India status, only 30% of the flights at the minimum need to be with the airline itself. 
  4. Priority and premium one-stop member service: Silver, Gold, and Platinum members will have access to a one-stop member service contact center. This should be a way to jump the queue on non-status customers when dealing with customer service teams. 
  5. New perks: The program has finally started to come around and introduce additional benefits for its top customers. Gold and Platinum members can now change their tickets free of charge. They can also select the seats without cost and even be moved onto an earlier flight on a space-available basis. 

The airline is hoping the new system will win customers back to its own in-house loyalty platform. At present, many frequent fliers credit their flights to other Star Alliance carriers, which is a huge cash drain on Air India. 

Today’s developments still leave some questions unanswered. Not least the integration of Air India Express and Vistara into the program, which will come at a later date. 

Is Air India’s Flying Returns the best loyalty program out there? No. But these changes certainly help bridge the gap and make it a more competitive offering.

This story has been updated to clarify redemption terms for last-seat availability.

Watch Campbell Wilson, CEO and Managing Director of Air India at the Skift India Summit 2024:

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Tags: air india, flying returns, india, india travel, loyalty, vistara

Photo credit: Air India

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