Airlines still think customers are stupid

British Airways aircraft at London Heathrow.

While most U.S. airlines have learned to be relatively honest with their best customers, many of their foreign peers have not yet realized that travelers are not as stupid as to fall for their PR spin and questionable practices.

It’s time for those carriers to wake up to the fact that it’s the end of 2011, and much in the airline industry is rather transparent to those of us who pay attention. Trying to persuade customers that bad news is actually good may be an essential PR trick, but in today’s hyper-connected world, it’s not hard to figure out someone’s true intentions.

Among the airlines still using the old playbook is British Airways, which is surprising for such a major and quite good global carrier. Last month, it drastically devalued its award redemption chart, but it tried to present that negative change as a positive one.

The clue came with the usage of the world “revitalizing” to describe the changes to the carrier’s frequent-flier program, Executive Club. At least they steered clear of “enhancement,” which is what many U.S. carriers used in the past, inviting much derision from frequent fliers.

British Airways announced a few weeks before the changes took effect that they were coming, but what those changes actually were going to be remained a secret until the very day they were implemented. That move showed gross disrespect for the company’s best customers who deserved much better for their loyalty.

In contrast, many U.S. airlines and hotel companies publish their new charts, as well as other program changes, months in advance. One recent exception was Delta Airlines, which didn’t really have an official global chart for more than a year, until it finally published one in February, effective immediately — actually, much of it was already in use unofficially.

Apparently, British Airways was afraid that many Executive Club members would rush to burn their miles before the last change — after all, there were plenty of miles on its books, partly thanks to its giving away 100,000 miles as a credit-card sign-up bonus. So it said that the number of award miles required for “97 percent of our routes” will stay the same or even go down.

In fact, that turned out to be false. In an attempt to save face when the new chart came out, the airline said it had meant 97 percent of the nonstop routes out of London.

While some of those nonstop routes have indeed become cheaper, there are many Executive Club members outside London who earned their miles hoping to use them for trips to cities other than London. Unfortunately, they are the big losers — the increases in those cases can be over 80 percent. Substantial premiums have been added to connecting and partner flights across the board.

Those changes, along with the huge amounts British Airways charges in taxes and fees on award tickets, have drastically devalued its miles. Just this week, I booked award tickets to Asia for two clients, and I really wanted to help them burn their British Airways miles. However, that particular award had almost doubled in price, and the taxes were over $1,200 per person. So I booked with another airline for nearly half the miles and $85 in taxes.

British Airways in certainly not alone in thinking that customers are stupid. Air Canada quietly started charging fuel surcharges on some partner award tickets earlier this fall. Did it hope no one would notice that they were asked to pay hundreds of dollars more than before? Finally, after Air Canada was exposed on various blogs, it admitted what it was doing and said that even more partner flights would be included in the new program.

And then there is the scandalous behavior of the United Arab Emirates’ Etihad Airways last month.

For two days in October, it advertised a First Class fare from Spain to Australia on its website for less than 400 euro. According to Spanish media reports, about 300 people bought tickets. The first of them traveled 10 days later, when an agent in Brussels noticed the fare and alerted the appropriate department. It was then determined that the fare was a mistake, and the passenger was downgraded to coach without any compensation. The rest of the tickets were canceled.

I’ve written about mistake fares before, but the issue here is not whether Etihad was wrong not to honor the tickets. I said scandalous because of a letter the airline sent to the passengers who decided to put up a fight and wanted to defend their rights through the media.

Etihad hired a law firm in Spain that in no uncertain terms threatened those customers in writing with litigation, if they dared to go to the media. The last time I checked, Spain was a democracy with freedom of speech, and the United Arab Emirates was something quite different. I don’t believe anything has changed since.

Related stories:

Airlines neglect non-flying experience

How much slack do the airlines deserve?

U.S. warns airlines on fare mistakes

Singapore Air’s inept agents, dark side

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