Changes to the British Airways and Virgin Atlantic loyalty programmes I’d like to see in 2021
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Joining airline loyalty programmes is key to travelling in style. And guess what? They’re free!
Once you’ve got your account, you will immediately start benefiting from perks. Generally, the more you fly with a certain airline, the more miles and elite status-qualifying points you’ll earn. In the case of British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, these elite-qualifying points are known as Tier Points.
As you earn more Tier Points, you’ll climb through the various levels of your chosen airline’s frequent flyer programme. The higher up the ranks you get, the better the benefits and perks become.
From small things like earning an extra percentage on miles when flying to being eligible to access lounges no matter what class you’re flying in and much more.
For more information on British Airways’ and Virgin Atlantic’s frequent flyer programmes and elite status, check out the following guides:
- What does British Airways elite status get you, and how do you earn it?
- The ultimate guide to flying Virgin Atlantic
While I am a member of both of these programmes and have enjoyed using them as they are for some time, now is a better time than ever to shake them up a bit. Here are some changes I’d like to see from each this year.
Thanks to COVID-19, flying with BA looks a lot different from what it used to. Like other airlines, it has made some effort to retain customer loyalty. For example, BA extended the use-by date of its most valuable perk: the Companion Voucher. A few months later than many other airlines, BA also eventually extended elite status expiration dates by a total of 12 months.
As there is no clear end in sight as to when or if things will ever go back to how they were pre-pandemic, I think there are a number of things our flag carrier could do to improve its loyalty programme this year.
A further extension of elite status
In June, British Airways announced it was extending the elite status of Executive Club members by a full year. This is great for those members, like myself, whose Tier Point collection year is as late as March 2021, as now I have guaranteed Silver status until April 2022. However, for those whose Tier Point collection years reset in April, May and June 2020, but still didn’t manage to hit the required number of Tier Points even with the 25% reduced threshold, only their current status was extended by a year. They did not get the status back that they may have lost in their previous collection year.
With no prospect of travel rebounding anytime soon, the question should be raised whether the current extension and Tier Point reduction are enough. Chances are that for most elite members, at least the first half of 2021 will be spent on the ground rather than in the air and, therefore, the 25% threshold reduction will not be enough to maintain the status.
I understand that British Airways can’t be handing out elite status to everyone, but it needs to make sure status is actually attainable given the current global circumstances.
Improved upgrade chances
“When the upgrade clears” is a phrase often used among frequent flyers in the U.S. where upgrade lists for those with status on domestic flights is commonplace.
In the U.K., it’s not quite the same story. Though when you think about it, getting 45 minutes worth of free Champagne and coronation chicken sandwiches when upgraded on a domestic flight from London to Newcastle is almost laughable compared to what an upgrade can mean for our pals in the States. For example, flying domestically in the U.S. from coast to coast can mean a fully flat bed with all the business class bells and whistles you’d expect on a long-haul international flight.
In the U.S., airlines like Delta offer complimentary day-of upgrades to certain qualifying passengers — including those with elite status. This is a great benefit for the passenger, but also for the airline. In the passenger’s eyes, the potential for an upgrade by earning status is likely to increase the chances of staying loyal to a certain airline. For the airline, this means they can free up potentially oversold seats “down the back.” They move elites towards the front of the aircraft, thus accommodating the otherwise-offloaded passengers, which in turn saves the airline hassle and money.
However, to say that British Airways doesn’t ever upgrade its passengers is not entirely true. I once had an OpUp (Operational Upgrade) upgrade from World Traveller (economy) to World Traveller Plus (premium economy), likely because the economy cabin was oversold and I had Silver status at the time.
These occurrences are few and far between. Knowing that being Gold, or even Silver, and flying in BA’s economy or premium economy would improve your chances of being upgraded would be an excellent perk to have, even if it were just for shorter European flights.
Especially now that demand for travel is so low, it would be a real incentive to get people booking again. Airlines are likely going to have to do all they can to win back customers and their loyalty once demand starts to pick up.
It’s been a few years since British Airways introduced a buy-on-board menu. By doing so, it did away with its complimentary food and drink offer on short-haul flights. Gone are the days of free-flowing gin and tonics on my flights home to Newcastle (NCL) from London (LHR).
In a recent update, the airline announced it would be launching a pre-order menu created by chef Tom Kerridge. In addition, the flag carrier has opted to continue handing out complimentary bottles of water and snacks — probably one of the only positive changes made in light of the pandemic.
That said, if you’re in BA’s Euro Traveller (short-haul economy) cabin as a Blue, Bronze, Silver or Gold elite cardholder, you are not entitled to anything more than someone who doesn’t even have a BAEC membership. I think it’s high time that changed. Especially given flights to some places in Greece, Turkey and Cyprus can be more than four hours. I don’t know about you, but a bottle of water and a bag of crisps wouldn’t quite cut it for me.
British Airways could bring in a new credit system whereby elites flying short-haul in economy would be eligible for free pre-orders. Whether that’s per flight, per order or a fixed-cash value, it would certainly make those passengers flying Euro Traveller feel more valued as elite status holders.
I’ve experienced similar in the U.S. when flying American from La Guardia (LGA) to Charlotte (CLT). As an Executive Club Silver member, I was entitled to upgrade my free soft drink, wine or beer to a spirit.
To add insult to injury, for those flying domestically in economy with BA these days, all of BA’s regional airport lounges are closed indefinitely. This means as an elite member flying in economy to London or beyond, there are no complimentary refreshments from arriving at your local airport to getting off the plane in London.
Tier Point earning on reward flights
Earning Tier Points on reward flights is a new perk that Virgin brought into the mix last summer. Virgin detailed that its Flying Club elite members would earn elite-qualifying Tier Points on redemption flights, an industry first.
When booking BA or Oneworld partner airline flights using Avios, Executive Club members neither accrue Avios nor Tier Points. This loses the Executive Club points against Flying Club.
If you’re a frequent flyer, you might even consider Tier Points to have more value than Avios or Virgin Points. Using each of the status perks every time you fly can amount to savings of hundreds of pounds — and that’s not including the money you save by eating and drinking with access to airline lounges.
As many of us are flying less than ever before, it’s never been more difficult to earn Tier Points. If British Airways introduced the earning of Tier Points through redemption flights, even if just for a time during the pandemic, it would certainly be a huge benefit to its loyal customers who are struggling to achieve their elite status goals.
Way back in March 2020, Virgin was one of the first airlines to announce it would be extending the status of its elites by six months. More recently, the airline offered 50% bonus Virgin Points and Tier Points on new bookings as well as an improved status match offer for BA elites in an attempt to steal the loyalty of BA frequent flyers — we’ll touch on that later. In September 2020, the airline made some extremely positive adjustments in that Virgin Points no longer expire and it became the only loyalty programme that allows members to earn Tier Points on award flights.
However, I think there is still more than could be done to enhance its Flying Club programme.
An additional level of status
Virgin’s Flying Club only has three tiers of status: Red, Silver and Gold. That, compared to British Airways’ Executive Club, which has four: Blue, Bronze, Silver, Gold. (For the purpose of this comparison, we’re excluding BA’s Gold Guest List status.)
When comparing the benefits of the two, the following Virgin and BA tiers roughly equal each other, respectively: Red with Blue, Silver with Bronze and Gold with Silver. That leaves BA’s top-tier level Gold without a direct comparison in Virgin’s Flying Club.
This is where Virgin could introduce a fourth tier. Call it Platinum, Gold Elite or whatever it may be, this would open up the opportunity to introduce perks that are not currently available, like upgrade credits or access to an even more exclusive lounge, similar to BA’s Concorde Room.
Unlimited Clubhouse access with Silver status
Take them or leave them, lounges are a significant factor to consider when planning a trip. Whether you’re travelling for business or pleasure, a visit to a lounge pre-flight can be the perfect place to freshen up and refuel, catch up on work or even have a quick nap before a flight.
It just so happens that lounge access is the biggest pain point I have with Virgin’s Flying Club programme. As it stands, access to the airline’s swanky Clubhouses is only available to those flying in Upper Class or with Gold status — Virgin’s top tier of status. British Airways, on the other hand, permits all Silver members to access its business class Galleries lounges no matter which cabin they’re travelling in — a perk that is valued highly by many a frequent flyer, including myself.
Note that passengers with Silver status but who are flying in Upper Class are granted access to Virgin’s Clubhouses.
In Virgin’s announcement about its new status match offer to lure in BA elites, the airline also said that it would be adding a new perk to the Silver level later in 2021. This new perk will include two Clubhouse passes for Silver members to use, regardless of which cabin they’re travelling in. While this is certainly better than no lounge access at all, it would only get you access for one or two trips at the most, depending on there being a Clubhouse at your destination. I hope Virgin boosts that benefit, allowing Silver members that access in any flight, in any cabin.
Improved upgrade chances
Similar to BA, upgrades are few and far between when flying Virgin. Introducing some kind of system similar to the one I described above would definitely be something I’d take into consideration when deciding where I should focus my airline loyalty moving forward.
Now, about that BA status match offer. On first hearing about it, I nearly booked a return ticket to South Africa for New Year’s Eve 2021 in Premium. There are definitely draws to making the status match, like 30% bonus Virgin Points, Premium check-in and boarding and free standard seat assignment. However, until lounge access is guaranteed when flying in economy or Premium, I’m unlikely to make a Virgin booking to complete the status match any time soon.
In a world of endless testing, mask-wearing and other countless restrictions, we could sure use an extra incentive to get booking flights again. While the U.K. remains in a strict lockdown, it would be a great time for the airlines to get their heads down and figure out some improvements to things like their loyalty programmes for when it’s legal for us to fly again.
The improvements and changes that have been implemented so far throughout the pandemic have been good — especially for Virgin Atlantic. But I think there is scope for both programmes to be great.
Featured image by Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images
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