Tuesday 12 December 2017

Gold Circle veterans see no silver lining with Aer Lingus move

George Clooney
George Clooney
Mark Evans

Mark Evans

There's an upside to being a hired gun travelling around America to fire workers, as George Clooney showed in the Hollywood hit Up in the Air.

All that jetting around cities and states meant building up air miles - and Clooney's character was aiming to be the youngest traveller to hit 10 million with American Airlines and reap the benefits of free luxury trips in return.

But for Ireland's frequent flyers it's a bit more mundane. Building up airline loyalty points is largely about making travelling less stressful. It means fast-track security lanes at the likes of Dublin Airport; free access to lounges and the all-important wifi and power points; priority boarding when the airport gate is mobbed.

Airline travel isn't a novelty for them, it's a necessary evil, but one where productivity can be lost while in long queues, and where it's often off to a meeting straight after the flight.

Aer Lingus has replaced its long-established Gold Circle scheme with a new loyalty entity, AerClub. The pushout has gone viral on social media - in the worst possible way - with many respondents taking to Twitter to register their confusion about the move (at best) and anger (at worst).

And many of them are heavy-hitters, including former minister Lucinda Creighton, singer-songwriter Paul Brady, tech and financial services ceos and key figures, plus names in international sports bodies and NGOs.

Communications consultant Derek Mooney, a government adviser from 2004-2010, has taken around 15 flights in the past 12 months, paying a higher fare rate to maintain his Gold Circle status.

He's now got 60 tier credits under the new regime, placing him in the lowest tier status of green (below the new silver, platinum and concierge classes). "I'll need 300 tier credits to get to silver and have priority check-in, lounge access and priority boarding," he said.

"I've paid the plus rate [higher fare band] for over a year and I've nothing to show for it," he said. "Customer loyalty schemes work both ways, and we'll show you ours next year."

A regular on the likes of the Brussels and other European routes for key meetings, he's baffled by how his new points were totted up, and said he'll look at taking his business to Ryanair, and will pay his own way for lounge access on the back of lower fares.

Aer Lingus told the Sunday Independent that tier status will be calculated on your travels in the previous 12 months, and said worried members could contact the customer service team on 1890 800 600.

But Mooney felt so aggrieved, he started his own mini-survey - "how do you rate the transfer from Gold Circle to AerClub - among fellow passengers on Twitter. He said he received over 400 responses, with almost half (48pc) saying "atrocious"; 22pc said "a bit messy, but alright"; while 20pc felt it was "seamless, no problems".

Dubliner Trevor Butterworth, who now lives in Brooklyn, travels across the Atlantic every eight weeks to visit his parents. He said Gold Circle "was about the little things, but all the little things are gone". Despite his card being valid until May 17, he said he's now back to scratch with AerClub.

"It's a strange way to reward my loyalty," said Butterworth, a director at US non-profit organisation Sense About Science USA.

Initially flagged last November, the launch of AerClub - which is run in conjunction with Avios, which is owned by Aer Lingus' parent IAG - was delayed from earlier this year. The airline said the new scheme would make it easier for customers to build up points (Avios points can be gained through booking flights on Aer Lingus, partner airlines such as British Airways and United, and buying goods in major store chains).

Every euro spent on an Aer Lingus flight (excluding taxes, fees and charges) equates to three Avios points. The airline said it's a fairer system for all kinds of travellers, as not all fare types in the past converted to air miles.

Despite some worries that reward points might expire after a calendar year, Aer Lingus said: "Only where members are not earning or redeeming points for 36 consecutive months will their Avios points then expire."

Alongside Avios reward points, members earn tier credits (which get the frills that business travellers need) based on their frequency and spend with Aer Lingus.

To get to the silver tier (the minimum to get perks such as lounge access), you'd need to take six one-way transatlantic trips on the lowest fare, or two in the much pricier business flex rate. But if the lowest price is a sale or promo fare, you'd need 12 one-way transatlantic trips to make it to silver.

Within Europe, you'd need to take 20 one-way flights at the lowest fare, or double that to 40 if the flight is on a sale or promo basis.

But while the new scheme may appeal to new entrants, frequent flyers like Butterworth feel past loyalty has been forgotten.

"This is a dysfunctional programme - I have other options and I might now look to Delta with its rewards scheme," he said.

Aer Lingus said in a statement that "Gold Circle memberships have been automatically migrated to AerClub and members have received an AerClub account number. Existing Gold Circle points were converted into Avios points - all Gold Circle Tier members received two Avios points for every one Gold Circle Point and these have been credited directly to their AerClub account."

But another angry customer, a social media strategist, is now shy of the points needed for silver tier under AerClub, despite being a frequent transatlantic flyer and saying "it's a keyboard click" from Aer Lingus to rectify the situation.

He said "all my old loyalty points have disappeared", and isn't happy that he's being treated the same "as someone just going from scratch who never bothered to fly with Aer Lingus".

He added: "If that's how they treat a customer, United can't be any worse - and they've a great app for their loyalty scheme."

But his lingering feeling about the national airline is common among those who spoke to the Sunday Independent: "I'd like to give the business to an Irish company."

Sunday Indo Business

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