IN FOCUS: Qantas and new tier lifts Emirates loyalty programme

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Emirates' landmark co-operation deal with Oneworld member Qantas is already changing the landscape of global airline partnerships and is now filtering through to its frequent flyer programme.

The recent Airline Business/Global Flight Loyalty 2013 conference came to Dubai at a busy time for its home airline's loyalty programme. In the space of a day in February, Emirates was able to announce the creation of a new top-level tier to its Skywards frequent flyer programme, followed by new wide-ranging benefits for the scheme's members through its tie-up with Qantas.

The new Platinum levels, which sit above Skywards' existing Blue, Silver and Gold tiers, target its top-level flyers who have earned more than 150,000 miles.

"The new tier is designed to show our most valued customers how important they are to Emirates and to offer greater recognition and benefits to those who choose to fly with us on such a frequent basis," says Emirates executive vice-president, passenger sales worldwide, Thierry Antinori.

Platinum members will be able to receive exclusive benefits usually reserved for First Class passengers, including First Class check-in, baggage delivery and access to the First Class lounges in Dubai with a guest. Existing Gold Emirates Skywards members eligible for Platinum status will be automatically upgraded to the new tier from April.

The creation of a Platinum tier is similar to that of its new partner Qantas, but Brian LaBelle, senior vice-president at Emirates frequent flyer programme Skywards, says it has been in the plan since day one. "The Qantas move have been the tipping point that helped with the exact timing, but it has been under development over the last couple of years," he explains.

Under their new partnership Qantas is switching its transit point for European flights from Singapore to Dubai. As a result of the tie-up, which remains subject to final regulatory approval, members of the carriers' respective loyalty programmes will be able earn miles on each other's flights - with some exception for Skywards members on the Qantas domestic network.

There is reciprocal lounge access for Gold members or above and tier status in either airline programme will be reciprocally recognised when flying on the joint Qantas-Emirates network.

"There will be certain changes required of the programme but for the most part the partnership will provide members with more earning and reward opportunities as the Australian domestic network now becomes available to them," explains LaBelle.

"In addition they receive tier membership benefits for flights on Qantas which is pretty much a first, as we aren't part of an alliance where this typically tends to happen."

It is part of continued evolution of the Skywards programme across membership tiers including partnerships with Alaska Airlines and JetBlue in the USA and European carriers TAP Portugal and EasyJet.

"The [EasyJet] service is pan-European, that is one of the benefits for us," says Labelle. "Rewards with EasyJet have already proved to be very popular with members based primarily in the UK and in other European countries along with redemptions from members in the East.

"It is certain to drive engagement in the UK and other European markets as the EasyJet network allows members to expand their travel options across Europe and North Africa giving members the opportunity to use their Skywards Miles to fly to over 130 destinations within Europe and North Africa.

"This strategic partnership will provide our robust Skywards members base, 31% of whom reside in Europe, with a novel way of redeeming their miles and expanding their travel possibilities," he adds.

LaBelle believes these moves continue a tradition of innovation within the Skywards programme. "Skywards was one of the first programmes to allow confirmed upgrades with Miles way back in 2000," he says.

"It still remains one of our unique features with members having the ability to upgrade to a higher cabin from any fare and with the ability to do it in advance or at check-in or on-board. A large majority of our rewards are upgrades highlighting the popularity of this choice amongst members."

He cites the popularity of members being able to redeem miles for hospitality and general admission to major sporting events, linked to Emirates' high profile sponsorships.

The airline also introduced its Miles Accelerator feature in 2010 - for which it was recognised in the 2011 Loyalty Awards - through which members can book flights with bonuses to enable them to boost their miles and reach their rewards even quicker.

While in recent months there has been an increase of activity in airlines looking at spinning off their loyalty programmes, LaBelle rules out such a move pointing to the strategic importance of the scheme to growing the airline. "We want it to be focused firmly on the airline's objectives," whilst adding the carrier has been reluctant to move its brand too far into the retail space. "We are very protective of our brand," he says.