JetBlue’s loyalty program, TrueBlue, is due for a revision. As far back as last June during the JFK T5 tour that I arranged they were telling us that a new program was on the horizon. When I was talking to executives at the JFK T5 grand opening opening they specifically mentioned that major improvements were on the horizon. The rumors have been flying wild and their online focus group/survey program has been pretty good about showing what they are thinking as they attempt to validate the plans. Sadly, the news doesn’t look good for customers.
The program looks to be headed straight towards rewarding customers directly based on how much they spend with the airline. That’s great for the very high spend customers, but reality says there aren’t many of those. And in those situations the low spend customers tend to lose. Badly. Basically they’ll give you some number of points for each dollar you spend. Those points can be redeemed at a fixed dollar value against the price of any ticket available for sale. The good news that comes with that is no blackout dates. The bad news is that earning sufficient points becomes horribly difficult.
Say you fly back and forth between New York and California a few times a year on cheap fares for vacations. You earn your 100 TrueBlue points and cash them in for a vacation somewhere random. That reward ticket probably cost more than you were paying for the individual tickets you were buying, at least if you’re taking full advantage of the program. In the new program, however, a $1,000 spend (~4.5 transcons at the low end of the price spectrum, enough for 100 TB points today) may only earn you enough points for $100 in travel credit. Now, instead of getting a round trip reward to San Juan or Aruba you’ll be lucky to get a round trip ticket to Pittsburgh (no offense) during a sale. Note that I do not know the specific earning numbers that TrueBlue 2 will have, but 10% is where Virgin America placed the value of their points at for their program so it isn’t too far out of the realm of possibility.
The other interesting thing that this opens up is access to redemption partners. One major limitation TrueBlue has suffered from is the inability to redeem points for anything other than JetBlue flights. With their Aer Lingus and Lufthansa partnerships I would expect redemptions to happen with these carriers, too. The problem is that the numbers make redeeming for these rewards horribly uneconomical. A typical coach ticket to Europe from the East Coast will cost between $300-600 at the low end, depending on the season. Using the same 10% number that translates to a $3,000-6,000 spend to redeem. And that is at low season and in coach. Those numbers just aren’t competitive with the legacy programs and their earning potential.
One good thing that seems to be coming is their TrueBlue “SuperFan” designation, their version of an elite program. It is poised to include “priority seating in the first five rows, priority boarding, reseating and rebooking priority in case of a cancellation, and more.” Those are all great benefits, especially the first one, as those front rows are the Even More Legroom seats that normally require a $10-30 up-charge per flight. Getting access to those for is a pretty nice benefit. The catch, however, is what the qualification threshold is rumored to be: $5,000 in annual spend. That is a ridiculously high qualification level, particularly because the benefits are pretty limited. Again, the new TrueBlue program would come up horribly short against legacy programs and similar benefits. Sure, lots of folks spend that much or more on air travel annually, but most of those folks are getting real value, like first class seats, copious amounts of points in a program and the ability to redeem those points at reasonable levels for domestic and international travel.
The problem as I see it is that JetBlue is banking on the upside of this plan, but that upside is all marketing fun. “No expiration of points” is great, though it is sad just how long you’ll need to collect enough points to redeem for a great reward. “Earn points based on what you spend” seems good since you know you’re going to earn points but once you realize how many points you actually need to get a cool reward you’re going to be pretty disappointed. “SuperFan status for big spenders” sounds awesome until you realize that the vast majority of folks won’t get anywhere close. But it all markets well so folks are going to be really excited initially, right up until they read the fine print.
The legacy programs may not be pretty and they may have a lot of fine print and rules to deal with, but those rules can at least be manipulated in the favor of the customer. The new programs don’t seem to have much opportunity on that front. That’s bad for those of us willing to pay attention and play the games, and it isn’t particularly good for the casual traveler either.
Disclaimer: I’m basing a lot of these observations not on actual announcements but on the details I gathered over the past few months from online surveys. JetBlue has stated outright in the surveys that they are being used to refine the details of the new program but has not confirmed and of the specific details yet. So don’t hold me to any of the specific details, but it all looks pretty likely to me.
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