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2 Great Frequent-Flyer Programs

© Courtesy of Southwest Airlines

Social media recommendations rate the top programs for frequent flyers.

What I’m about to tell you may shock you. But it offers some insight into surveys and the minds of loyalty-program members.

In a recently released study of 1,000 reward program participants, the Delta SkyMiles (yes, that Delta) and Southwest Rapid Rewards programs received the highest “recommendation index score,” as determined by the ratio of positive to negative comments. The study was conducted by Zócalo Group, a word-of-mouth marketing agency.

It should be noted that neither airline program scored well compared to nontravel rewards programs, such as retail, with Delta SkyMiles coming in at number six overall, with an index score of 11.04. Southwest Rapid Rewards came in at number eight overall, with an index score of 11.01—yet the two were the highest-ranking travel rewards programs. (The average recommendation index was 13.7.)

The reason this study result is shocking is that it contradicts other data, as well as sentiment on the street and in online forums.

Paul Rand, president of Zócalo Group, has a few interesting observations about the survey, including the fact that positive recommendations far outnumbered negative recommendations, even in the travel rewards category. This apparently contradicts the more visible comments from various travel-related forums, which always seem to be negative. He said that those who comment about a travel company in a negative way are typically looking for a reaction and a solution, while those who comment in a positive manner are dealing in a degree of currency, passing along information of an upgrade or experience with an award redemption that lets someone else in on their secret and leaves them feeling helpful.

According to Rand, the primary drivers of negative word-of-mouth point to problems with redemption, lack of benefits and expiring points. These relate specifically to the difficulty that consumers have in making use of the rewards they’ve spent time accruing. Many have criticized Delta SkyMiles in online forums, pointing out that the airline’s award inventory was a negative aspect of the program, but this sample seems to indicate that SkyMiles has enough going for it that either the report was flawed or Delta has done a superb job in overcoming that problem. Obviously, I hope it’s the latter.

As for Southwest Rapid Rewards, it is never a surprise when it ranks among the highest in any sort of recommendation index, as Southwest has a very transparent and outward-looking policy when it comes to monitoring social media such as blogs, forums, Twitter and other discussion venues. The program will rate higher because its possible negative score leads to online customer service—thereby turning a negative into a positive.

The study concludes that members tend to recommend rewards programs based on their most recent experiences earning or redeeming rewards. Accordingly, members are most likely to speak positively about those programs that reward them every day and provide some form of instant gratification. This appears to parallel the efforts by many frequent-flier programs to introduce more relevant awards that can be used sooner than the typical 25,000-mile flight award.

The next time you wonder which program to recommend, keep in mind that Delta and Southwest are on the minds of frequent fliers.

Randy Petersen is widely regarded as the world’s leading expert on frequent-flier programs. He founded FlyerTalk.com in 1998—the largest discussion forum on loyalty programs—and MilePoint.com in 2011. He is also publisher of Inside Flyer magazine. He holds more than a million miles in at least five airline and four hotel loyalty programs. He can be reached at editor@executivetravelmag.com.

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