Air Miles: How customers fought back and won (CBC Marketplace)


♪ [theme]>>This isMarketplace.You’ve probably heard your Air Miles aren’t expiring, but you haven’t heard this story, how ordinary people took on the largest loyalty program in the country and won. It’s “The People Versus Air Miles”. Five Air Mile collectors, five computers, five phones. Their challenge, redeem their loyalty miles. By the end of our show, who will feel rewarded and who will feel ripped off?>>Feeling pretty jaded right now.>>Mike, James, Ivan, Joanne, and Razvan are loyal long-time customers.>>Five extra bonus miles.>>They go out of their way to buy from Air Mile partners, shopping for everything from gas to liquor to groceries. Millions of other Canadians are trying to redeem their miles too. Our five are hitting the wall.>>I’ve been running into some major road blocks.>>This guy’s heard all about those road blocks.>>I’m fed up.>>Says our five are not alone.>>People aren’t able to get the rewards that they want.>>Robb Engen’s been blogging about reward programs for years. He’s here to expose the problems collectors have with Air Miles. Welcome, everyone. So there’s really only one rule to this challenge. You must use your miles to get something you really want. This is Robb.>>Hi, everyone.>>Hi, Robb.>>Are you up for this challenge?>>Yes.>>Yes, we’re ready.>>Okay, ready, set, get shopping. ♪ ♪ Should we be saying good luck to them and wishing them well?>>I think they’re going to need all the help they can get. ♪ ♪>>Has anybody gotten in yet? Because I just keep getting the circle going around and around.>>They have the slowest web site that I’ve ever experienced.>>Just getting a spinning circle.>>Wow.>>You know, I’ve heard from readers they’ve had to click five, six times to even get to the page that they want.>>Is everyone in?>>Yep.>>Our testers are under the gun because of this. Five years ago, news of the expiry was buried near the bottom of this press release mentioning your miles will have a five year timeline in which they’ll need to be redeemed. No one here saw that.>>There was not clear communication from Air Miles about the expiry.>>I got nothing in writing. I got nothing from them.>>Wasn’t mailed to collectors. It wasn’t made apparent on the web site. It was buried under the terms and conditions and frequently asked questions what is Air Miles expiry all about? So you really had to go digging to even find any information. The release itself said don’t worry, you don’t need to do anything. So if someone even read it, they might just dismiss it.>>I think it was sneaky.>>Very, very sneaky. They obviously didn’t want us to know.>>Why do you think they would do it that way?>>I think they were hoping nobody noticed so that they can clear these miles off of their books and increase their profitability.>>Yep, expired miles are better for the bottom line because paying out rewards costs the company money. Maybe that’s why Raz can’t find the reward he wants for his miles. He’s looking for a TV.>>Normally on any site I go…>>Just search TV, should come up.>>But it’s not coming.>>Raz has been saving for almost five years. He’s got just over 1,700 Dream Miles.>>4K TV, nothing.>>Nothing available.>>Does that mean there are no more TVs?>>I guarantee you they have it.>>All the rewards that you’re trying to find are buried deep within the site and in some cases impossible to find.>>The website spits up a TV. But guess what. He needs 16,000 miles to get it. Raz is way short. Anybody want to give Raz some miles?>>They charge you money to give people miles.>>Do they?>>Yes, there’s a fee.>>15 cents for every mile.>>Out of the goodness of your heart if you want to give someone else your miles?>>15 cents for every mile?>>Yes.>>That is insane.>>I’m not giving you my wallet. Sorry.>>15 cents, it’s ridiculous. It’s outrageous as a matter of fact.>>There is another option. It’s called a dynamite deal. One second. What’s a dynamite deal, Robb?>>So a dynamite deal is what Air Miles calls some kind of a sale on their merchandise, so you have to use some miles and pay cash.>>Pay your own cash.>>Pay your own cash.>>Out of your wallet.>>To get a reward. Does that sound like dynamite?>>Let’s see. For that TV, he has to use all his miles and fork over an extra $1,743 in cash. Hmm. Seems crazy. And listen to this.>>The same TV is $1,699 atThe Brickwhich is actually cheaper.>>So it’s cheaper to buy it at your local retailer.>>AtThe Brickthan buy from Air Miles.>>Doesn’t sound dynamite at all.>>No, it doesn’t.>>What do you make of that?>>This sounds like a classic win-win for Air Miles. They get to take some reward miles from their customers and you pay them cash for it.>>Lose-lose for Raz.>>Absolutely.>>Definitely. [laughing]>>Maybe Joanne Moscone is having more luck. With 598 Dream Miles, she has the fewest to burn. What’s she going to get? She wants a hotel room in Barrie, Ontario. Surely she’ll get that.>>This is really frustrating. It’s telling me there are no hotels available through the Air Miles reward program.>>Joanne knows what she really wants. Travel certificates. But they took those rewards away from collectors like her.>>I went to order my certificates. They’re not there. Can’t find them anywhere. Never notified any of us that they were doing that.>>So Air Miles discovered that people like to redeem their miles for things like gift certificates which probably cost Air Miles a lot of money.>>Since 2012, the company has been quietly taking popular rewards out of the dream category and sliding them into a new category called cash, but the majority of collectors are stuck in dream, so they’re losing out.>>What they really said back then was that you don’t have to do anything different. You can continue using the program. Meanwhile behind the scenes, we’ve changed all the rules and shifted things around. So it’s very sneaky on their part, somewhat deceptive I think to their collectors.>>It’s a reward program. Why is there two sides? Why is there expiry dates? When you earn those Air Miles, you earn them.>>Over here, more road blocks. Anyone looking for a flight? I think all three of you are, aren’t you?>>Yes, I did and I gave up.>>Ivan Hrabowsky has about 5,000 miles to burn but he’s finding the web site confusing. What are you going to do?>>Cry in my beer. It has to be gluten-free beer, though, and that doesn’t taste too good. [laughing]>>Michael Judd’s laughing through his pain. He’s got the most miles here. He’s desperate to get to New Zealand to visit family.>>How’s your search going, Michael?>>Not great. About the same as it’s been going the last six months. Dead ends. Just searching, searching, searching.>>You’d think after searching for half a year and being somewhat flexible, he’d find a flight.>>It’ll crash. It’ll time out. Even though you’re working, it says, it times you out. Other times, you’ll get a little bit further and nice big window will pop up saying, sorry, but we’re experiencing technical difficulties.>>It does make you wonder, is it intentional on Air Miles part?>>I suspect as soon as they see I’ve got a lot of Air Miles, they say, ooh, let’s give him some road blocks. That’s all I can think of.>>And that’s no way to treat a loyal collector.>>I’ve spent somewhere between three quarters of a million and a million dollars with Air Miles business partners. I’m a good customer.>>So is James Fulcher. He has 25,000 miles. He wants to take his wife on a dream trip. Where are you going, James?>>Well, I was planning to go to London from Montreal.>>Check it out. He finds a flight. But wait, there’s a snag. He’s got to fork out extra cash on top of his rewards.>>The taxes and fees through Air Miles was $618.>>$618 extra? Is that fair? Well, over at Air Canada’s site, exact same flight, only $253 in taxes and fees.>>Unless it’s broken out for us in a different way, it looks like Air Miles is gouging on this. It’s a cash grab, disguised as taxes and fees.>>In some cases, Air Miles taxes and fees appear to be much higher than those charged by airlines.>>People join rewards programs because there’s supposed to be a fairly significant cash savings. That’s the motivation for joining the rewards program. This clearly is not working.>>Got that right. Time for some answers. Want to call them up?>>Sure, let’s do that. Okay. [dialing beeps] [phone rings]>>Welcome to the Air Miles reward program. We are experiencing higher than normal wait times. We’re not able to take anymore calls today as the current expected wait time exceeds our operating hours this evening.>>They’re open until 6:00 but they’re not taking any more calls.>>Sorry, we were not able to assist you further.>>And it’s 3:30.>>They just hung up on you.>>They just hung up.>>Feels like they’re stealing my money.>>When we come back, “The People Versus Air Miles” continues.>>This is yourMarketplace.>>The real deal on yourMarketplace.>>We’re not able to take anymore calls today as the current expected wait time exceeds our operating hours this evening.>>Air Miles has just hung up on some unhappy collectors.>>Wow.>>What just happened there?>>I feel like I can’t do anything.>>Obviously they don’t have enough staff in their call centre to handle all the inquiries they’re getting.>>But we’re not giving up because we have a secret weapon. Joanne’s a VIP collector.>>Well, I’m onyx. I’m supposed to get priority on the queue.>>Will her special status help this group bust through?>>Welcome to the world of onyx, the ultimate Air Miles experience.>>Hello, you’re speaking with Carol. How may I help you?>>Hi, Carol, it’s Joanne Moscone calling.>>Joanne wants to know why they moved her Marlin travel certificates.>>And you took them from the dream side and moved them to the cash side.>>Okay.>>So why wasn’t I ever notified that you were moving Marlin to the cash side?>>It’s been on our web site. I’m not sure how it missed you.>>Well, I am continually on your web site and I never once saw that. Why can you not move those Air Miles over to the cash side for me? Don’t tell me it’s two different services, two different things because you are Air Miles, you’re one company.>>So if it could be done, we would be more than happy to, but it’s not something that can be done.>>Why?>>The Air Miles dream does not have a cash value and cannot be transferred.>>Okay. Why?>>Because they’re two separate programs.>>No, don’t tell me that. Don’t tell me that. You are air miles. You wrote the program. Why can’t you move those over?>>Remember, the program can make changes, right, with or without notice. It’s clearly outlined in everything on our web site in all the terms and conditions.>>Well, I’m getting really frustrated. I’m getting nowhere here.>>But we’re not ready to hang up.>>I tried to book a flight.>>James can’t wait to get a breakdown on all those extra flight fees.>>These are all charges that are going to the airline. So $350 is the airline surcharge, then there’s a Canada air security charge of $25.91.>>She spells it out, but it doesn’t make sense to James.>>Maybe what you have to do, James, is give Air Canada a call and they might be able to better explain it because honestly, when it comes to the price and taxes, that’s not something that’s controlled by us.>>You’re asking me to call Air Canada, for example, to find out why you’re charging so much in fees and taxes.>>This call’s going nowhere. ♪ ♪>>Hello?>>Hello.>>I’m still here, James.>>Okay.>>I just didn’t know what else to say, to be honest with you.>>We check with Air Canada and get this. Air Miles is slipping more than half of the cost of that flight into those extra fees. Some reward. Can anyone take off?>>I’ve been trying to book a flight for quite a period of time to New Zealand.>>Michael spent countless hours on the web site.>>Seems all but impossible. I’m trying to figure out why.>>He’s had enough. Surely Carol can fast track the search.>>When it comes to searching flights on our web site, we share the same tools. We have to do the same as you.>>So basically for me, for me, you really can’t help me as such. I have to just keep trying different dates.>>I wouldn’t be able to help you any different than what you’ve already seen on the web site, to be honest with you.>>Wow, that’s really disappointing.>>Clearly nobody’s leaving a winner today. We find something that might explain why. A business document. Turns out they don’t want us to redeem all our miles. Their goal, have us burn up less than three quarters of them. Execs say we actively control the program via the options that you can redeem for. Is that why so many Canadians are having trouble? Are any of you satisfied right now?>>[all]: No.>>I think they want them to expire.>>It’s greed.>>They have to hold them in trust for us for when we spend them, all that money. It’s a lot of money. Millions and millions of dollars.>>What message do all of you have to Air Miles right now?>>Well, the first message would be cancel the expiration.>>Yes.>>Yes.>>Absolutely, cancel the expiration. It’s totally unfair.>>I’m so frustrated with this reward program that I’m done. I’ve been loyal since 1993, and this past year, I’ve had nothing but frustration.>>You’re cutting up your card.>>Done. Moving on. Different reward program.>>Wow.>>Air Miles just lost a customer.>>They did, a loyal one.>>Raz, you’re clapping.>>I am, because I’m pretty much going to do the exact same thing. Actually, I’m going to borrow that.>>Here you go.>>Yeah, you know, I’m not sure how much they will see, but I’m out.>>Goodbye.>>What are you going to do?>>I’m going to fight it as long as I can and not just for myself, for others. ♪ ♪ I’m not giving up on this at all.>>Back in his hometown of Oakville, Ontario, Michael’s on a mission.>>I’ve been in touch with Air Miles’ president’s office.>>He’s complained to the Better Business Bureau and that got Air Miles to follow up. They say they’re trying to get him that flight to New Zealand.>>Hopefully I’ll get it.>>But he’s not banking on it, so he’s ramping up his fight.>>Like they say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease and right now, I am the squeaky wheel.>>Thank you for calling the office of the president. Our specialists are not available to personally take your call at this time.>>Typical.>>We apologize for this inconvenience. [voice mail tone]>>Get back to me as soon as possible. That would be very much appreciated. Thank you. [hangs up] In my mind, shouldn’t even legally be allowed to happen. Those funds are put in trust for me to use. And as far as I’m concerned, they were there forever or until I use them. It feels like they’re stealing my money.>>Time is running out. So Michael’s taking it all the way to the Ontario legislature.>>I’m fighting for myself and everybody else that’s in the same situation.>>There’s a private member’s bill on the table to ban all loyalty reward points from ever expiring.>>Michael!>>Hello.>>Welcome to Queen’s Park.>>MPP Arthur Potts is the man behind the bill. Michael’s come to plead his case, lay out what’s at stake.>>To attain the points I have over the years, I’ve done in excess of 70,000. Well, that’s three quarters of a million dollars.>>That’s incredible.>>With Air Miles business partners.>>So you’ve earned those.>>I’ve been very loyal.>>You’ve earned those points.>>I have.>>I’ve heard from so many Ontarians just like you, they call me up and say, this is wrong, they’re stealing my points and you got to do something to stop it.>>Yeah.>>How confident are you that this is going to pass?>>I think there’s a good chance we get this thing done by Christmas. It will be an early Christmas present.>>Okay, that would be wonderful.>>So will it be a wonderful life? While the clock ticks, Michael’s hoping for a Christmas miracle. We’re going to bring your answer to Canadians and they’re not going to like what they just heard.>>We have offered the opportunity…>>The fight’s not over yet. Air Miles isn’t backing down and neither are we. This is yourMarketplace.>>You can’t afford to miss this. For long-time Air Miles collector, Michael Judd, it looks like his Christmas wish may come true. He’s at the Ontario legislature to talk to politicians who have the power to outlaw expiry dates for all loyalty programs. [gavel pounds three times] We’re here too, along with Air Mile execs.>>Today, we’re dealing with Bill 47 with respect to reward points, and as we understand it, there are several people who wish to speak.>>This is the moment Michael’s been waiting for.>>It really and honestly feels like I’m being blocked with purpose and intent. The level of service I would say is less than 1 per cent of what it was in the 90s. It is right now, from my perspective, appalling. It’s been very painful.>>Next up, the CFO and VP of Air Miles owner Loyalty One.>>Mr. Judd, we are working to resolve your issue. However, let me please say this to the committee. Mr. Judd’s experience is not the norm. We receive more than 13,000 direct customer contacts and process over 42,000 redemptions a day. This translates to an order every two seconds totalling over $2 billion in rewards value over the last four years.>>And their response to the bill?>>Now the government has put all loyalty programs on notice and essentially handcuffed business with respect to the management of its own affairs. This will have a negative impact on the loyalty landscape in Ontario. Let me be clear, the impact of this bill will be far reaching.>>For weeks, we’ve been asking for an interview with Loyalty One and they’ve declined. Maybe they’ll talk to us today. We’re withCBC Marketplace.We just want to ask, you heard in there, we’ve talked to so many Canadians who just want you to cancel that expiry policy. Why won’t you back down?>>We have shared our point of view with the committee. We have talked to them about having a comprehensive and collaborative conversation as it pertains to the matter at hand.>>VP of Corporate Affairs Mitchell Merowitz had better hurry. The legislation is expected to pass. If this bill goes through, what about the rest of Canada? You’re going to be forced to cancel the expiry policy, won’t you?>>As I said, I’m not going to speculate on these matters. What we are hoping to do is have a conversation, an open conversation.>>Air Miles says suggestions they don’t want Canadians to redeem their miles couldn’t be further from the truth and they’ve been improving their web site and customer service, but remember that document we dug up reveals management wants less than three quarters of miles redeemed. You don’t want all your collectors to redeem their miles. We found it in transcribed notes.>>What we want is our collectors to stay actively engaged in our program to both earn and redeem.>>Less than 48 hours after our exchange, Air Miles caves to public pressure. They cancel the expiry policy. So that’s a win for the people. Or is it? Look at this notice to their shareholders. Loyalty One will adjust the value proposition to collectors. Translation? They’re going to devalue your miles to make up for their lost profit. Canadians aren’t happy about any of this. [multiple tweet whistles] Congrats on making Canadians unloyal to your loyalty program. Livid with Air Miles right now. Wish I saved my points and redeemed them for something I really wanted. Hey, Air Miles, can I return the item I purchased only because I didn’t want to lose my points?>>Here’s Air Miles’ response. [tweet whistle] We are not accepting returns, cancellations or exchanges due to the cancellation of the expiry policy, once booked. The case of “The People Versus Air Miles” clearly isn’t over. We’re not closing this file just yet. We’ll continue to keep watching to make sure you’re getting the most out of your miles. ♪ [theme]

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