Lifelong loyalty counts for little when there is trouble in the air

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 July, 2005, 12:00am

When Loose Cannon flies to Europe, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines has always been his carrier of choice.

It isn't the cushiest airline in the sky and the food is average, but the reservations staff are accommodating and the flight attendants crisp, unflappable and efficient.

The experience would be wholly utilitarian if it were not for those nifty little Delft ceramic canal houses filled with Genever, a lovely Flemish liquor, given to business class passengers at the end of the flight. An outstanding touch, that, and one that has won KLM Loose Cannon's undying loyalty.

Alas, in the aviation business, loyalty is a one-way affair.

In the early 1990s, KLM hitched itself up with the US carrier Northwest Airlines, affectionately known as 'Northworst' among travel agents in the US.

When he happened to travel economy class on a Northwest flight to Amsterdam from Detroit, Loose Cannon discovered abysmal food, sardine-style seating and stressed-out cabin crew who seemed apt to whip out cattle prods at the first murmur of protest. To be fair, this is exactly what US air passengers expect, and KLM could hardly be held responsible for its partner's lack of European refinements. Moreover, the code-sharing arrangement between the two airlines was so successful that Northwest, the big brother of the pair, began referring to it as the 'Alliance for Life'.

Still, it was a huge relief last year when KLM found a much more suitable partner - the delightfully Eurocentric Air France, which offers excellent Gallic cuisine and the best economy class seating in the air.

The AF-KLM merger created the largest carrier in the world by revenue. AF-KLM is profitable and offers enormous global reach. Thankfully, both European partners (and their powerful trade unions) found it important to retain their respective national identities within the merged entity, and in most Asian markets passengers will find separate Air France and KLM offices.

But Loose Cannon was thrilled to learn earlier this year that his first- and second-favourite airlines had merged their respective frequent flyer programmes into one - 'Flying Blue'.

With roughly 50,000 miles accrued on each airline, the Flying Blue website assured him, he had enough mileage to fly Hong Kong-Paris-Washington round trip. With Mrs Cannon's 35,000 KLM miles, even business class might be possible.

But a call to Air France's Guangzhou call centre revealed the ugly truth: KLM had abandoned its most stalwart customer. There would be no filet mignon in L'Espace, and no free jaunt to DC.

During its long dalliance with the Americans, KLM had decided that it was not worth maintaining its 'Flying Dutchman' frequent flyer programme in Hong Kong. It instead shunted all its local passengers, including yours truly, into Northwest's WorldPerks programme as if it were a natural adjunct to its own business.

Every mile Loose Cannon flew on KLM over the years is controlled by Northwest Airlines, and Flying Blue refuses to recognise them. Northwest, meanwhile, is teetering on the brink of insolvency.

Senior company directors, who have been dumping their shares by the truckload, have warned that unless the firm can wring US$1.1 billion from its workers this year, and persuade the US Congress to let it pay out US$3.8 billion in pensions over 25 years instead of five, bankruptcy is all but certain.

In the meantime, one way to save costs has been to cut back on WorldPerks' obligations.

Here in Hong Kong, the WorldPerks office is in a state of convenient dysfunction, ensuring that a maximum percentage of customer mileage goes unredeemed.

Customers who call the WorldPerks office in Hong Kong in the afternoon will reach a recorded message saying, 'We are unable to take your call. Please try later.' They needn't bother until morning, the only time WorldPerks retains enough staff to answer the phone.

If they do get through, they will find that Northwest has an 80,000-mile redemption minimum for its non-US members. Only US customers are allowed to buy miles or transfer them between accounts.

It is - in theory - possible to redeem WorldPerks miles on Air France flights through the loose-knit, nine-airline SkyTeam, but a US sojourn through Paris would eat no less than 260,000 miles. Not even Loose Cannon is that loyal.