Changes Without Notice? One Airline Used to Offer a “Redemption Guarantee”

The late 1980s saw a number of changes to frequent flyer programs. At the time they were pitched to better reward high value customers. Everything old is new again.

And just like today some of the changes were idiotic. United, for instance, limited members to redeeming awards for people with the same last name. That meant if a husband and wife didn’t have the same last name, they couldn’t redeem for each other out of their accounts. A woman who changed her last name when getting married could give awards to her husband’s family — but not to her own sister or parents.

Several changes stuck, but programs rolled back others in the face of protests by members.

And Continental Airlines tried to take advantage of the uproar, committing to give members a window to take advantage of current rules if they ever tried to devalue.

The OnePass program, which covered Continental and Eastern, offered a “redemption guarantee.” If they ever increased the mileage price of awards, they would provide:

  • a 2 month warning

  • the option to choose the award you’re saving for, and have up to 3 years to earn the points for that award at current pricing.

Vice President of Marketing Mike Ribero, who went on to launch Hilton HHonors and run e-Rewards, said at the time that the redemption guarantee “assures our customers won’t see their dream vacation slip through their fingers just as they reach out to take it.”

That’s a common sense idea that’s long left the industry.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. While it would be a mistake to say that frequent flyer programs were better back then, some features certainly were. I remember when Continental introduced the revolutionary “BusinessFirst” product, which is what we commonly think of as modern int’l business class (before then, int’l biz class was a lot like domestic biz class — in other words, not very good). When they completely overhauled the product they — reasonably — started charging more miles for BusinessFirst. But I remember them allowing you to “lock in” a business class award at the current lower levels and letting you take a BusinessFirst trip later. Hard to imagine that happening today.

  2. I rarely flew when Continental was still around (and I think Bethune was still CEO) but I loved flying them. Everything from the headrests, to the fresh OJ, hot meals (they weren’t great but they still had them!) and especially the employees. Was hoping United would become more like Continental was..
    Also.. What? 1000 minimum award miles for every flight? 2,500 bonus for just signing up and another 2,500 for first flight?

  3. I miss old Continental. Meals at mealtime was a sad shadow of its former self by time the merger rolled around.

  4. Continental was the BEST frequent flier program. PERIOD! (I became a million miler with that program and am now a million miler with DL). Everybody was so nice and customer friendly. Gordon Bethune would give away an expensive SUV to an employee every single month as a reward. The reservations agents were so friendly and helpful – especially with award bookings.

    And I ended up with several of those mileage guarantee awards. When I had booked to Biz Class seats to NZ, and they stopped flying to NZ, they gave me a “coupon” for 2 First Class seats to Australia to be used within 3 years at the former Biz Class mileage rate. I used them on Qantas.

    I also ended up with 4 redemption guarantee coupons (2 in my name, 2 in my partner’s name) after they got their Business Elite seats. Two were for Hawaii, and two for Europe.

    As I recall, it was CO that begin the First Class upgrades for elite member when there were empty seats in FC. Eventually DL was forced to copy this, because on the ATL – NY route, DL was losing customers to CO because of this. Both had hourly flights to NY.

    Gordon Bethune know how to treat customers and was a leader in the industry during his tenure in CO. I was very disappointed he did not become CEO of United. And I wonder how the hell things descended so badly after the UA CO merger.

    Continental knew how to treat customers well for loyalty.

  5. CO – the leader in how to run an airline thanks to Gordon Bethune and his first rate team.

    State-of-the-art right down to the head sets.

    Ironically most of what people like about DL was the CO playbook brought over by Glen Hausenstein.

  6. This, and other customer benefits, was the result of a two year negotiation between state Attorneys General and several airlines. Southwest led all with initiating customer friendly policies such as actually being able to buy a one way ticket for what the others advertised as half of a roundtrip even though you couldn’t get half the roundtrip for that fare. Southwest, United and Continental led the pack. TWA sued the AGs, American was silent, and Northwest refused to participate in the negotiations. As a lead negotiator for the states and co-drafter of the National Association of Attorneys General Guidelines for airline advertising and frequent flier programs, I learned far more about the airline industry than I ever wanted to. But, to this day, that knowledge still pays dividends when trying to navigate the frequent flier programs. As a follow up to the airline guidelines, we turned to the rental car industry. Those eventual guidelines led to disclosures such as telling renters LDW is not insurance, and may be covered by your own insurance carrier. Never hesitate filing an complaint with your state AG if you feel misled.

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