There are times, though, that even I’m vexed.
Airlines and hotel programs see ‘loyalty program fraud’ as a bigger issue than ever before — whether it’s simply breaking the rules of a program by selling miles, or large scale account hacking (as has recently happened with some programs).
There’s a balance that programs need to strike. They want to enforce their rules, and they need to limit unnecessary costs. But they don’t want to swing the pendulum too far in the direction of enforcement where they make legitimate members jump through too many hoops. That would undermine their business objectives. Members frustrated by their programs aren’t going to participate in the programs, at least to the extent they would if they had a more seamless experience.
I’m working with an award booking service client now that’s run into a program which seems to have struck the wrong balance: Air France’s Flying Blue.
Flying Blue informed them that their award booking to Europe had been cancelled and their account suspended. They had their miles confiscated.
They were accused of purchasing miles from a broker.
Now, I know with 100% certainty that they didn’t.
- Their Flying Blue account has zero miles in it when we started looking for seats.
- When the award was found, they transferred American Express points in to cover the cost.
Now, to be clear I do not broker miles. And I don’t recommend mileage brokers. I get that request quite frequently — people who don’t have the miles for an award but would love to buy miles from or through me, or who wonder if I can direct them to a seller. I tell them outright no.
I suspect that airlines have mixed feelings about award booking services. On the one hand we help make their members happy, but on the other we drive up their cost by delivering more successful redemptions. They tolerate me though, because we follow the rules. (We have ways, even, of working through restrictions on who has access to member account data and who may speak on behalf of a member.)
And I deal regularly with executives of these programs as I put together the Freddie Awards — from conversations about the ballot in the fall through to the ceremony at the end of April, until those start back again the next year.
This client had their own American Express points, opened an Air France account in their own name, and then they transferred their Membership Rewards points to Flying Blue. The awards were booked for travel in their own name.
What’s especially strange here is that it is no longer possible to broker American Express points (without adding the person you want to give your points to as an authorized user on your card account). American Express stopped allowing transfers of their points to others’ frequent flyer accounts back in June.
What’s especially frustrating dealing with an airline’s fraud department is that they aren’t usually open to communicating with you, and they frequently don’t act quickly. We’ve helped the member contact Air France’s fraud department, actually reaching a real person there, but they’re obstinate.
We’ve booked over a thousand award tickets with Flying Blue, and while their website can be frustrating and the competing answers from poorly-informed reservations agents can be frustrating, we’ve never experienced anything quite like this.
Which just goes to show that if a thousand monkeys working on a thousand typewriters hit keys at random for a thousand years… well, that even though in my experience most of the time a member gets caught up in an airline’s crosshairs for fraud, they’ve actually done something wrong, that the evidence is overwhelming… or that sometimes the slow process of looking into a member’s account exonerates them… occasionally there’s an individual that just gets one wrong, blatantly and obviously wrong.
Fortunately I have a lot of options — for escalating, for bringing in others (like American Express), and for reaching out to executives at the loyalty program.
But it’s almost more often than not, these days, that I’m forced to ask the question: if I run into so much trouble dealing with airlines, how does the average person even successfully travel from point A to point B?
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