Canada’s Air Miles Announces Improvements to Reward Program to Appease Upset Members

CBC News

March 14, 2017

Air Miles is making changes to its loyalty program to appease angry members. Last year, many people accused the program of trying to make it difficult to cash in their soon-to-expire miles for rewards.

The changes will come into effect on April 3. On that date, Air Miles says it will start offering around-the-clock customer service through Facebook and Twitter. This move follows many complaints of long waits to reach the program's customer service department by phone.

The program will also make it easier for people with fewer miles to access rewards. When members who don't have enough miles buy a product, the program will let them use cash to make up the difference on up to 40 per cent of its reward merchandise.

And lastly, Air Miles plans to make its entire merchandise rewards catalogue available to all members. As an extra perk, higher status Gold members will get a 10 per cent discount and Onyx members a 20 per cent discount off merchandise.

Currently, not all members have access to all merchandise rewards. This policy fell under scrutiny last year when numerous members alleged that the program was hiding some products from them when they had enough miles to acquire the items.

"I have never felt so cheated by a company," Ottawa Air Miles collector Ashlea Langevin told CBC News in July. She complained that she suddenly couldn't order a camping stove on the program's website when she finally had enough miles to buy it.

Air Miles hopes its changes will stop the flood of collector complaints that have continued, even though it has cancelled its expiry policy for miles.

"After carefully listening to the feedback from our collectors, we are rolling out these enhancements to help ensure we remain Canada's favourite loyalty program," said Blair Cameron, head of Air Miles, in a statement.

'A pretty big mess'

Cameron also sent an apology letter of sorts to members this month in which he said that the program did not live up to expectations last year and had "learned very difficult, public and humbling lessons."

"They're trying," says rewards expert Patrick Sojka about Air Miles' attempts to win over disgruntled members.

Opening up its merchandise catalogue to everyone is an admission that it was wrong for Air Miles to segregate rewards, he adds. "This is the way it should have been from the start." Sojka, of Calgary-based resource site Rewards Canada, believes that the program still has a long way to go in making amends with its members. "They made a pretty big mess of things and they have a very deep hole to climb out of."

Air Miles is run by Toronto-based company LoyaltyOne. Its troubles began when numerous members rushed to cash in their miles last year to beat a looming expiry policy: Miles older than five years were set to expire and become worthless as of Jan. 1, 2017.

After many complaints by members that they couldn't find adequate ways to redeem their points, Air Miles cancelled the expiry policy — one month before it was set to take effect.

It's not over

Even though it nixed its controversial expiry policy, the program is still facing problems. Many collectors are still upset about their experience with Air Miles last year. Plus, some are now angry that they wasted their miles on products they didn't want just to beat a now defunct expiry policy.

"It really ticks me off. It's very upsetting," Corey Rogers in Bridgewater, N.S., told CBC News in December. He was saving his miles for a dream vacation and instead spent them on household goods he didn't even want, including a vacuum cleaner.

The program may also be facing problems with partnering retailers who pay Air Miles to provide rewards miles to customers.

Loyalty One's parent company, Alliance Data, stated in its 2016 annual financial report that the number of miles that members collected "slowed" toward the end of 2016.

It blamed partnering businesses, saying they reduced their Air Miles promotions "due to the negative media attention surrounding the expiry."

That's money the company had determined it would have gained from collectors who let their miles expire on Jan. 1 rather than redeeming them. With the cancellation of the expiry policy, the anticipated financial gain disappeared.

Alliance Data has said it will have to make changes to the program to make up for lost revenue. Recently, Air Miles quietly devalued miles on vacation packages, meaning more miles were needed to book the packages. That also upset members.

"I was surprised and then I was angry," Victoria collector Allison Peters told CBC News in January after making the discovery.

Sojka says if Air Miles devalues miles in any other category, it could "dig them even deeper into a hole."

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