Executive Traveller exclusive
Oneworld is forging ahead with plans to unlock points-based upgrades across the alliance, allowing members of every Oneworld frequent flyer program to secure a business class bump-up with a host of airlines around the world.
Under the plan, a Qantas Frequent Flyer member could use Qantas Points to upgrade on American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines and more, as an example: going beyond the current arrangements, whereby Qantas cardholders can only make outright flight bookings using points on the same.
“We think this is a good opportunity to really do something that is relatively substantial,” Oneworld alliance CEO Rob Gurney tells Executive Traveller.
“It's always been on our agenda … but we established it as a priority for 2020, to get to a conclusion,” even despite the substantial impact COVID-19 has had on international travel.
Countdown to launch
With 13 airlines currently full members of Oneworld – soon to become 14, after Alaska Airlines joins in early 2021 – that’s some 182 different combinations of airline ticket and frequent flyer program to work through on the upgrade front.
Qantas alone would be involved in 26 of those combinations: such as being able to use Qantas Points to upgrade on 13 other airlines (Alaska included), plus having frequent flyers of those 13 airlines being able to upgrade on Qantas flights using their Oneworld points or miles.
“There's a lot of work that's being done in rounding out what the ideal customer offering is, and just as importantly, how it's executed,” Gurney admits. “We've made a lot of progress on that.”
“I think it'll be 2020 – this year, certainly – in terms of finalising what the offering is and how it's executed, but we haven't got a firm launch date for it yet,” the Oneworld chief elaborates.
That kick-off date remains up in the air for now, although the launch is expected to occur when travel begins to bounce back, with airlines using some their downtime to get their systems ready for those intra-alliance upgrades.
“As we start to see some level of recovery in markets, I think having this ready – to release commercially, around that time – is going to be quite important for us,” tips Gurney.
Oneworld’s member base includes American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Royal Jordanian, S7 Airlines and SriLankan Airlines, with Alaska Airlines joining that list in 2021.
How will upgrades work, across so many airlines?
With the mechanics of the upgrade progress still being worked through, airlines are evaluating how to implement such points-based upgrades in a way that suits not only their business needs, but also the expectations of their frequent flyer base.
Right now, each airline handles its own frequent flyer upgrades a little differently: some allow upgrades to be cleared and confirmed instantly, others require upgrades to be ‘waitlisted’ for consideration closer to departure, and indeed, some offer both.
When asked whether those different approaches posed a difficulty in creating the alliance-wide upgrade system, Gurney explained that “the program has essentially been designed for the airlines, for their own customer base.”
“Of course, the markets are not homogenous, they're different: they've got different competitive dynamics, so the program is different from market to market … and the policies relating to how those customer components are offered and delivered, differ.”
As such, that mixed approach whereby some frequent flyer programs process upgrades instantly, and others queue them on a waitlist, could be applied when upgrading on a Oneworld partner from those same programs.
Still, “I think we’ve got pretty good alignment across our member airlines around how this is going to work,” Gurney says.
The final hurdle: the frequent flyer
After everything becomes finalised behind the scenes – including how the airlines will compensate each other when upgrades are processed – the final step becomes educating the members of each Oneworld frequent flyer program about the new upgrade system, and how it’ll work for them.
“How can we explain it simply, and how can it be delivered efficiently and effectively?” are just some of the considerations Oneworld will face in the rollout process, Gurney shares.
What it “looks like through the lens of the customer” is also important, as is the need to balance the complex economics for airlines in the background, with simplicity in the foreground for frequent flyers, who’ll be getting their head around the new arrangements.
“If it was really simple, we would have done it before,” Gurney admits, “but I think we've got a pretty clear roadmap of how we're going to get there.”