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Frequent fliers ask what happened to the rewards

Asiana Airlines reserves very few seats for its loyalty program
Dec 26,2019
Asiana Airlines is facing bitter complaints from its most loyal customers. Members of its frequent flier program say their mileage points are useless because Asiana doesn’t set aside enough seats for loyalty rewards.

One frequent flier surnamed Kim, a 44-year-old office employee, is planning to travel to Europe in July with family members. Kim was planning to fly on Asiana, but discovered there were no seats on Paris-bound flights that could be reserved with mileage points.

“When I checked Korean Air’s website, there were seats that could be bought with mileage points in July and August,” said Kim. “But not on Asiana, and I can’t understand that.”

Another frequent flier surnamed Choi, 36, had a similar experience. Choi tried to book Asiana tickets to Los Angeles in early August with mileage points, but no seats were available from Aug. 1 through Aug. 22.

“Even though it will be the peak season, I am booking so far ahead of time,” Choi said. “Considering Asiana flies two flights to Los Angeles every day, I can’t understand why there isn’t a single seat that can be reserved with mileage points.”

Some frequent fliers took their complaints to e-People, a government website where citizens can file complaints. “Perhaps there aren’t any seats to be reserved with points because Asiana Airlines is intentionally cutting down on the number of seats available,” reads one petition.

From late March 2020 through late October, the number of seats earmarked for rewards on Asiana are a lot fewer than on Korean Air. That is the best comparison in the Korean context. Budget carriers run very different kinds of loyalty programs.

From late March 2020 through late October, Korean Air offered seats in business class and economy that could be reserved with points on more than 90 percent of its flights heading to LA. Asiana Airlines offered business class seats on only 21 percent of its flights and economy class seats on only 64.8 percent.

On flights to New York, Korean Air had reward seats in business on 80.5 percent of its flights and reward seats in economy on 84.5 percent. On Asiana, only 19.5 percent of flights to New York offered business class seats, and only 51.9 percent offered economy class seats.

During the peak season, Asiana offered reward seats on only 25.8 percent of its flights to LA from Incheon in July, and 24.2 percent in August. Reward seats were available on 97.7 percent of Korean Air flights in July, and 97.8 percent in August.

Asiana Airlines does offer more reward seats on short haul flight to China and Japan.

“We are abiding by [a government] recommendation to keep five percent of all seats available to be bought with mileage points,” said a spokesperson for Asiana. “Although we are flexible depending on the market condition, the company expects to have booked more than 5 percent of all seats through rewards this year, just like last year.”

In 2008, airlines agreed with Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport to reserve at least five percent of all seats for reward bookings even during peak seasons.

“Considering routes, types of aircraft and the number of people holding mileage points, the number of seats that Asiana sells with mileage points is too few,” said a spokesperson for the Voice for Consumers, a private consumer protection organization. “Using mileage points is a consumer’s right, and it is the responsibility and obligation of business operator to make that happen.”

Korean Air has also faced a backlash over changes to its loyalty program.

Starting next year, Korean Air will change how mileage points are saved and utilized.

Based on the revision, which was encouraged by the Fair Trade Commission, travelers will be able to purchase ticket using both points and cash. Prior to the change, tickets had to be fully purchased in cash or mileage.

More changes will be introduced the following year.

Starting in April 2021, Korean Air will offer fewer points for flights in economy class. Travelers who buy tickets at discounted prices will earn fewer miles.

Korean Air argues that it will now offer more miles to first class and business class passengers.

Following the revision, Korean Air will charge more mileage points for indirect flight than it did previously. Before the change, Korean Air only counted the miles between the point of departure and final destination to determine the mileage needed to book the ticket, making stopovers a bargain. After the change, Korean Air will calculate all miles traveled on all legs of a journey.

“The standard for saving and deducting mileage points has been revised based on the global standard,” according to a spokesperson for Korean Air.

The largest complaint is a change in the premium member system, which will begin in 2022. Premium members can enjoy extra services like using airport lounges for free. Passengers who traveled a million miles on Korean Air and other airlines in the Sky Team Airline Alliance used to be given premium member status for life. Following the change, however, the status will only last for a year.

Some people blame the government for interfering with airlines frequent flier programs - leading to changes that only hurt the customers.

“Korean Air offered better services to long-term passengers compared to global airlines, but all the perks have vanished following the Fair Trade Commission’s demand to allow mixed payments [of cash and mileage for tickets],” wrote one commenter online.

“If the government regulates, it seems like consumers enjoy benefits in the short run, but eventually, consumers are the ones that suffer the damage,” said Prof. Cho Dong-keun, who teaches economics at Myongji University.

BY KWAK JAE-MIN, MOON HEE-CHUL [jin.minji@joongang.co.kr]