Saturday, July 07, 2007

Today's GRR award winner: JetBlue

One of my first Birds & Bills posts was about how frequent flyer miles are a depreciating currency. The only motivation for airlines to make their frequent-flyer programs attractive is to please customers. Can anyone think of an industry worse at keep customers happy than airlines? With margins grim, fewer flights scheduled, and more flights flying at capacity than ever before, airlines have a financial disincentive to make those miles easy to redeem -- and the pain of redeeming them has long been a customer gripe. Blackout dates and small ticket allotments to miles-redeeming passengers are a chronic complaint.

So, really, I don't know why I expected any differently from JetBlue, except that I still sort of buy their marketing hype about trying to be a different kind of airline. About 18 months ago, I had a notably good customer-service experience with them: I was trying to fly to Boston (in December) the day a massive snowstorm hit. By 7:30pm, our 10am JetBlue flight was still grounded -- and I was officially no chance of making the 8pm dinner I was flying to Boston to attend. I opted to cancel my trip, and called JetBlue to see if I could get a refund. Which they gave, easily. Since my ticket was nonrefundable, I'd figured a credit for a future flight was the best I could hope for, so yay JetBlue.

This week, though, they are not dazzling me. Last year, I flew JetBlue a ton back and forth to the West Coast, and racked up enough points in their frequent flyer system for a free ticket (well, technically, two -- you get two one-ways, which can be used together or separately). JetBlue's frequent-flyer program is simpler than other airlines, but also stricter: you have one year to use points before they expire, and one year to use your free flight before it expires.

Actually using your free flight, however, is every bit as heinous as on other airlines. I don't know what kind of allotment JetBlue is giving per flight for points-redeemers, but it doesn't seem to be good. I've tried four times this year to use one of my free-flight segments -- most recently, for either a flight from Seattle to NYC anytime Sunday, August 12 or for a flight from Portland, Maine, to NYC anytime on Thursday, July 26. Both trips show plenty of flight availability -- multiple flights each day, still selling tickets -- when I search on JetBlue. When I search for award travel, though, it all dries up. Sorry, no flights available for booking. GRRR. What use are my points if I can't ever actually use them?

I finally, grumpily, used the points for the one flight from Portland to NYC that was available for award travel on Wednesday the 26th, a day earlier than I really wanted to book the flight. So, I did at least get my free ticket. But I am grumped about the limitations. It seems absurd that none of the four trips I tried to use the free ticket on worked out.

Which is why I think air-miles credit cards are for suckers. Air miles are one of the hardest-to-use, most-restrictive, most limited rewards systems going. In contrast, you never get the runaround trying to get your cash-back awards or redeem credit-card points for credit or restaurant gift certificates (my standard use of In NYC awards points). I'd rather pay cash for airline tickets and use my points for other, less fraught things.