Brian LaBelle, senior vice-president of Skywards, the Emirates frequent flyer programme, has responded to criticism of the new terms being introduced for the members of Emirates popular Skywards frequent flyer programme, now numbering almost five million.

In an email sent out to its members earlier this month, the airline indicated that “In order to better cater to the different needs of our loyal customers, Skywards will evolve into a more modern, sophisticated and personalised programme”.

The email went on to detail ten major changes, including linking the earning of miles to the type of ticket purchased to benefit members who pay higher fares. Earning zones will also replace the existing miles between cities calculations, and tier miles will be earned by fare type, destination and class of travel.

In a recent topic posted on the forum  (“Skywards – Changing for Bad or Worse”) the reaction has not been positive, with typical comments including “The ten key changes are not that clear and the website is poorly designed”. There has also been criticism of the partial nature of the information released and Skywards staff being unable to help with further information.

Speaking exclusively with Business Traveller from Dubai, Brian LaBelle accepted the criticism and said the feedback was valuable.

“We purposefully thought we would bring a little bit of information out at a time so as to not deluge people with all the changes, but we’re learning that maybe people want more information than we had planned.

“The details will come out in the next few weeks, and our intention was to make the announcement, then a few weeks later bring out details on the earning of miles, and then a few weeks later the rewards, and then after that the tiers, but as a result of this feedback, we will accelerate the process.”

LaBelle said that the details will come out “over the next few weeks” and insisted that there was “no attempt to hide anything.”

“The intention was to make things manageable. We had to do a lot of internal briefing of staff and the reaction from customers has been a bit of a surprise but it is very good feedback and we are going to do additional briefings to make sure that people feel the staff have got the answers they are looking for.”

With regard to the changes, LaBelle was clear about their effect:

“One effect will be to make the programme more discerning as to who reaches silver and gold tier levels. We have to make sure that the right people are getting to those tiers and that we are rewarding them.”

Labelle sought to put the changes in context:

“It’s the first major change to the programme during its ten-year life, and it’s in response both to the feedback we’ve had from member of the programme and also to align the Skywards programme more closely with the Emirates business.

“Business conditions have changed, and technology has changed within the airline industry so we are able to do things that we weren’t able to do earlier, and we’ve learned a lot about our members. It’s a very diverse membership base and we want to cater to different members differently.”

One aim of the changes is to “make the programme a little more exclusive for the top fliers”, LaBelle confirmed.

“People who travel on different fares pay different amounts of money and they think they should get more miles as a result in the same way that people who pay more should get into the silver and gold tiers earlier, and that fits with one of our objectives to align the programme with the Emirates business.”

Some gold card holders in the programme have also given feedback that they believe there should be a further top level tier above gold with greater privileges.

“From the beginning of Skywards we had a plan to have an upper tier for these very special customers,” LaBelle confirmed. “We don’t have any concrete plans or dates at the moment but we are very aware of this segment and this is a product we would like to put in place.”

The Skywards membership will have grown by 20 per cent this year, adding two new members every minute. It employs around 500 people with its main base in Dubai, but also centres in the UK, in Australia , Japan and India.

In other details LaBelle confirmed:

  • All tickets would be classed either ‘Skyward Flex’ or ‘Skywards Saver’  (ie: tickets with restrictions imposed). These latter tickets would receive only 50 per cent of base miles.
  • Earning Miles will be based on broad geographic zones. Miles will be credited upon reaching your final destination, rather than per sector . “Most customers have little idea of the exact number of miles on a sector, and it simplifies things if we have a chart where they can read them off” LaBelle said.
  • Miles will only be awarded at the completion of a journey (eg: Newcastle to Sydney) rather than at the end of each sector (Newcastle to Dubai; Dubai to Sydney). LaBelle said this was not to prevent throwaway ticketing (where a passenger does not use the full return part of a ticket, normally because it was bought to take advantage of a lower fare), but simply so promotions cold be more effectively targeted. “If you are doing a promotion you want someone to take a full trip on us, not take advantage of a promotion and then come back on a different carrier and still get the bonus.”
  • He stressed that Skywards is a global programme, with no accelerated earning ability for members living outside the UAE. “I would get a very tough reaction from our UAE customers if we attempted anything like that.”
  • “Miles Accelerator” – LaBelle explained that this was to give the airline more scope on targeted promotions. “There are some flights we would like to encourage people to use – so if we have daily flights on a route we’d like to encourage people to use the not so busy days, or where there are several flights each day to use the less busy one, and people who are flexible can see using this device that they will earn a lot of bonus miles by changing their pattern.
  • LaBelle said that the Emirates High Street, where members can redeem miles for gifts, has achieved its target of five percent of rewards being redeemed and was “more popular than we expected.”
  • He also said that the bonuses for first and business class were intended to be part of making the programme more attractive for high revenue passengers.

Further details can be obtained from the FAQs on the Skywards website (click here to view). By entering an email address, members or interested parties will be automatically notified of any changes or additional information.