Enormous snaking lines out the terminal doors, hand-written boarding passes, delayed flights, broken web sites, no elite recognition, missed upgrades, an inability to redeem miles – that’s what passengers have come to expect from an airline’s reservation system changeover.
Let’s face it; passengers don’t care about a reservation system until it breaks. Delta-Northwest, United-Continental, Virgin America — all three suffered reputation and brand image hits just this decade whilst merging or replacing reservation systems.
With the perennial trend of airline consolidation, plus the evolution of formerly low-cost carriers into full interlining and codesharing airlines, an announcement that “we’re changing systems” has become code for savvy travellers to avoid booking on an airline for a while.
That’s among the reasons why Virgin Australia — the former Virgin Blue low-cost airline that’s been in a two-year transition period to full service under CEO John Borghetti’s ‘Game Change’ programme — is sweetening its transition from Navitaire to SabreSonic for members of its ‘Velocity’ frequent flyer programme.
All points redemption bookings made under the new system will earn full elite qualifying status. It’s called ‘earn while you burn’ (a somewhat unfortunate moniker given the rash of devastating bush fires across southeastern Australia).
Painting the upcoming transition in a positive light for frequent flyers is a smart win for the airline, which saw its international brands Pacific Blue and V Australia folded into the Virgin Australia brand in 2011. Yet even knowledgeable passengers – who already understand they stand to benefit from SabreSonic – appreciate ‘earn while you burn’.
Virgin Australia frequent flyer Christopher Neugebauer is a mobile application developer who currently holds a Velocity frequent flyer gold card (though he has hopes of getting back up to platinum). He’s familiar with the limitations of the current Navitaire system and keen to see significant improvements under SabreSonic.
“As someone who flies on Virgin’s long-haul operation regularly (annually at the least), bringing together those two operations is long overdue,” Neugebauer says of the transition.
Being based in the Tasmanian capital of Hobart, which has few direct flights to mainland Australia, Neugebauer explains that the limitations of the Navitaire system meant that he was pretty hard done by in terms of status credits: a two-sector trip from Hobart to Canberra via Melbourne would only earn one set of status credits. SabreSonic will mollify some of the frustrations of needing to connect via Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane for Neugebauer and other frequent flyers who aren’t based near Australia’s major hub airports.
More than that, though, Neugebauer is looking forward to the former Virgin Blue and the former V Australia working like a single airline.
“I got stuck at home trying to get to San Francisco during the ash cloud back in 2011, and the international and domestic wings of the airline were completely unable to coordinate themselves — arrangements made for passengers on domestic travel weren’t communicated to me as a passenger travelling on a domestic leg of an international ticket, which meant I got held up for two days due to missing various arrangements to get me interstate.”
The ‘earn while you burn’ programme also means that Neugebauer — who just missed re-qualifying for platinum status this year — can spend points in order to regain his top tier status.
“Thanks to Virgin’s rolling 12-month windows for upgrading status levels, I have a bunch of status credits left over from the latter part of last year, so I only have to earn some 500 status credits before May to regain platinum, rather than the full 1000 that I’d have to earn if I started from nothing.”
“After the promotion [was] announced, I did a quick look on the Velocity site, and found enough business-class reward seats to earn my way back to platinum with the number of points I had,” Neugebauer explains.
And like any good frequent flyer, he’s making the most of the benefits resulting from the SabreSonic implementation, including the opportunity for passengers who take two connecting legs to earn status credits on both sectors.
“Things I’ve taken advantage of include taking two-leg segments instead of one-leg segments – the redemption seats cost the same, but earn at least 40 status credits more.”.
Overall in terms of the ‘earn while you burn’ sweetener, Neugebauer says: “as someone who previously had little hope of regaining platinum in the short term, this is very welcome indeed”.
It’s a big boost to Neugebauer’s brand loyalty too.
“This is the first time in about a year they’ve done anything to hold onto people already fly Virgin – they’ve done more to hold onto status-match platinums” from Qantas, Virgin Australia’s main competitor and the big player in Australian loyalty programmes.
“So with that in mind, it’s very welcome that they’re doing more to hold onto my own loyalty as someone who earned their way to platinum.”