Cathay Pacific marks 25 years of Asia Miles

Executive Traveller sits down with Cathay’s loyalty chief to hear about what’s next for the powerhouse Asian rewards currency.

By David Flynn, June 20 2024
Cathay Pacific marks 25 years of Asia Miles

This year sees the Oneworld alliance celebrate 25 years of bringing together many of the world’s best airlines, and it also marks the 25th anniversary of Asia Miles, the currency of Oneworld founding member Cathay Pacific.

“The Asia Miles currency was launched 25 years ago, really at the birth of Oneworld,” relates Paul Smitton, Cathay’s Director of Customer Lifestyle.

“Before Asia Miles there was a joint venture program called Passages that we participated in. Then we joined Oneworld and at the same time moved to having our own currency called Asia Miles.”

Plans are afoot “to celebrate that Asia Miles is 25 years old, to celebrate that with people who’ve been collecting Asia Miles all that time,” Smitton tells Executive Traveller.

One screen to rule book them all

But there’s also plenty happening behind the scenes, where Smitton’s team is replacing core parts of the ‘backend’ that also date back some 25 years, such as the operating system which underpins the entire Cathay program.

“That’s something we are actively doing at the moment,” he says, with the goal of giving Cathay frequent flyers the best possible experience.

One of the end goals is to revamp the Cathay Pacific booking site so travellers can book their tickets with cash, Asia Miles or a miles+cash combination all on the same screen, rather than shunting miles-based bookings to a seperate and poorly-designed page.

It seems obvious – why wouldn’t you want to have all your options presented when booking a flight from Hong Kong to London, for example? – but that’s not possible because the ‘cash booking’ and ‘AsiaMiles booking’ engines are separate.

An overhaul of this “legacy system” will bring cash bookings and miles-based bookings together onto a single screen, although Smitton admits this is unlikely to happen until at least 2026.

“It gives you an idea of the scope of the project that it’s going to take that long to clean up the old database and bring everything forward.”

“The booking engine and reservation systems are such critical systems within an airline, so the ability to do everything in one place is easier said than done.”

“We’ve made a lot of strides from a front-end perspective to try and make it easier for customers to find those redemption flights, so the user experience is a lot better than it was just a few years ago – but the core ability to have it in a single booking engine is still not there.”

The new system will also make it possible for Asia Miles and even Cathay status points earned through partners to be instantly credit to accounts.

“We’ll be able to have instant processing if we get the data from the partner, including other airlines, so it can be instantly recorded. At the moment that’s not something we can do, it's more of a batch process, but the new state-of-the-art systems let you do much more real-time processing, which is very exciting.” 

The AsiaMiles market

The Cathay loyalty program now numbers some 11 million active members, Smitton reveals, and Cathay is expectedly dominant on the home front.

“Roughly a quarter of the membership base is Hong Kong, another quarter is Chinese mainland, and then the other half of the base is dispersed around the world.”

“Southeast Asia is probably the biggest region outside of our core ‘greater China’ market and would probably get to 10% or 12%, but I don’t think there’s any single market that actually jumps to double digits.” 

Moving to “activity-based” Asia Miles expiry

One of the most recent changes to Asia Miles is that Cathay abandoned the fixed three-year life of miles, shifting to “activity-based” expiry.

“It’s actually very good for customers because if you’re an active customer it’s very easy to maintain activity,” Smitton reasons.

“When a point has a fixed life, it forces you off a cliff… the customer is about to lose their miles and there’s nothing they can do” outside of a use-them-or-lose-them scenario where they have no a choice, compared to the relative ease of keeping all their Asia Miles alive through some simple activity.

“What I’ve seen in other programs I've been involved in, is that customers who are trying to avoid expiry but don’t have enough miles for a flight, or can’t find a flight at the time they want, might use them in a redemption shop.”

“So it’s a less-engaging redemption option, if that's the reason behind it. I’d much rather them be choosing to take the reward they want, when they want it. If that’s a product in the store, fine, they’ve chosen to do that, whereas under a fixed- life model for point, they don’t have that choice.”

More reward seats

Speaking of turning Asia Miles into Cathay Pacific seats, Smitton says the airline will continue to add more redemption seats to the pool.

“We made the announcement last year that we would offer the same number of redemption seats in 2023 that we did in 2019, even though the airline was a long way from 2019 levels.”

“This increased the number of seats dramatically that would otherwise have been available, and 2024 is about continuing that, we’re growing from the number that we used last year.”

"From my perspective, the program is all about helping customers use their miles.”

"We take a long-term view that it’s about customer engagement: if people can use their miles for a flight or whatever else they want to use them for, they’ll feel good about the programme and they'll feel good about the brand and that creates that longterm engagement.”

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