Home Airlines Why We Stay Loyal To Airline Brands (And Why We Sometimes Shouldn’t)

Why We Stay Loyal To Airline Brands (And Why We Sometimes Shouldn’t)

by joeheg

Why do we stay loyal to airline brands? I guess that depends on how you define loyalty. For points and miles people, their first reaction may be to think about loyalty programs. I’ve argued that these programs aren’t really about loyalty anymore and more about incentivizing you to change your current habits.

I’m not talking about this type of loyalty. I’m simply asking why do we stick with a particular company. I’d bet that you have a go-to airline that, all other things being equal, you’ll book first. If that’s because you’re a part of the loyalty program and need to keep your status, maybe it’s time to hop off that hamster wheel.


If you’re hub captive to an airline, you really don’t have a choice. If you’re from Atlanta, you’re more often than not going to fly Delta. The same goes for those who fly from Washington-Dulles on United. You’re not loyal because you want to be, but more because you have to be. Choosing not to would be to your own detriment.

But why do other people choose and then stick with a brand? It’s because they feel content with the product which they’re receiving. But could they be wrong? Is the product offered by that company much better than what’s offered by its competitors?

For example, Southwest has some of the most loyal fans of any airline.  They’ll always fly Southwest if possible and are likely to have a Southwest co-brand credit card and use it for most of their purchases. Why are people so loyal to Southwest when the product they offer is rather plain and their loyalty program isn’t very lucrative?

People like Southwest because they don’t have to think about checked bag fees or seat assignments. That’s part of the appeal. You don’t need to pay extra to not sit in a middle seat in the back of the plane. If you buy some souvenirs when on vacation, you can check that extra bag and not pay $35 to $50. It’s not the actual value people receive that makes them book Southwest, it’s the perceived value they’re getting that’s important.

Southwest promises a product and delivers on that promise. They say their fares have “Transfarency”

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It’s amazing how much people like getting what they expect. Note that Southwest isn’t promising to have the lowest fare. Just that when you find a fare with them, that will actually be the fare.

What some pundits can’t believe is that people other than leisure travelers find that appealing. Many business travelers would book Southwest flights even when they could get better treatment if they switched their loyalty to another airline. Why?

Because they feel they’re being treated fairly. This makes them stick with Southwest when they could possibly do better with someone else.

Southwest’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced the loyalty that people have to the airline. Southwest is still limiting capacity on flights to allow for empty middle seats between parties. They’ve also extended the expiration on travel funds from canceled flights during the peak of the pandemic and allow you to turn those funds into Rapid Rewards points that never expire.

When Do People Change Loyalties?

If we have an idea of why people stay loyal, then we can figure out why people stop being loyal.

It can be because of a single experience that turns off a customer for life, but that’s rarely the case. It’s more likely a gradual process of a customer realizing that the reason for their loyalty no longer exists. Before COVID-19, airline loyalists were starting to notice that benefits were gradually being eliminated. The value for staying with one airline over another wasn’t there anymore. Why go out of your way to fly on one airline when another airline is cheaper, has a better schedule or both?

When you have top tier status holders questioning if that loyalty is worth it, there’s a problem. What happened?

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This is the look we all have inside when a company we felt we had an inseparable bond with goes and destroys that trust. We might think it’s a one-time thing and go back to them again. But then it happens again, and again, and again.

Finally, you realize that there is no trust. There is no bond and no need for you to be loyal anymore. Sure, you might still use their services when it suits you but it’s not because of special treatment expectations. It’s just the best choice at the time even realizing that you’re setting yourself up for more disappointment.

You may switch your loyalty to someone else or you might decide it’s kinda nice to be disloyal (BTW, it is pretty awesome IMHO).

Final Thoughts

There are reasons we stay loyal to an airline and reasons that we’ll stop being loyal. Both of them depend on trust (or lack of same) with that company. Whatever we expect from the airline will be delivered. Whether that’s a consistent level of customer service and dependability or a certain treatment for being a loyal customer doesn’t matter. It now can mean that an airline takes its COVID-19 safety measures seriously by keeping areas clean and enforcing the passenger policies they’ve put in place.

Delivering on that promise will lead to developing loyal customers and breaching that trust will cause your loyal customers to defect to the competition.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary



Christian August 9, 2019 - 8:50 pm

Well said.

Vet&Banker August 9, 2019 - 10:03 pm

Solid piece. It’s what we expect being delivered that builds and sustains loyalty, whatever that “expected benefit” is.

Where the US “Big 3” (and others) are going wrong in the long run is by removing the perceived value and thus putting low cost carriers into the same “consideration set” of customers. By making the benefits for even the most loyal customers essentially just coupons, they are allowing those customers to compare the price/benefits of every other airline. Then, once the loyalty airline makes a mistake (which is inevitable as all humans/systems are fallible), customers immediately have a universe of options to switch to.

Customers who do the math are of course in better shape, but that’s with any service provider (bank, internet provider, wireless service, etc). Once it’s only about price to the company then it’s only about price to the customer. And price has no loyalty.

Cathy Mullican August 10, 2019 - 5:54 am

Another nice thing about Southwest, although only relevant to a few, is that they actually give pre-board enough time to get settled before the next group boards. Most other domestic airlines, the next group is right on your heels.,

Bobs October 17, 2020 - 9:22 pm

I won’t stay loyal to anyone anymore. Benefits just doesn’t justify the extra cost sticking to one airline. Who care about boarding first or priority security if you are paying $100 more.

bryan October 21, 2020 - 10:39 am

CHANGE FEES. That and fees to redeposit points/miles after a cancelled award ticket is the reason I fly Southwest. These change, cancellation and redeposit fees are money paid for no extra service. It is “money for nothing”. I don’t mind paying for a service such as a checked bag or a better seat assignment. I find Southwest’s open seating very stressful and a negative but it is outweighed by their no change fee policy. Other airlines have eliminated many change fees during this pandemic, but not mileage redeposit fees, but they are still more restrictive than Southwest.

Ryan October 21, 2020 - 1:52 pm

Until an airline gives me a VERY good reason to hate them, I don’t. Having worked in the airline industry, I got first hand experience of what all the hassles are that they deal with, and everything that can possibly go wrong. I truly believe that EVERY airline out there wants to earn their customer’s loyalty, but in the end there is only so much they can do to remain a profitable and practical running organization.

Paul October 25, 2020 - 2:35 am

I was a very loyal Continental Airlines One Pass flier (followed by Mileageplus when it was bought out by United). I am currently a 1K (due to coronavirus extensions) and have been one since 2010, except for one year when I was Global Services. Having Global Services was like being in heaven and I’ve always loved United. Since then United has made so many detrimental changes to Mileageplus I have given up on earning any status with them. Maybe part of it is the fact I hit 1 million miles and will always have a minimum status. The biggest detrimental change was how United has completely abandoned loyal fliers who live outside the US (note I’ve resided outside the US for 2 years now). Prior to 2020 we were exempt from the EQD requirements – this is because United doesn’t even fly to my local airport (MNL) and I was earning miles through partners; obviously couldn’t earn United “spend”. This was a good arrangement until the new scheme was established with the stupid PQF and PQP system. Under the new system the PQPs earnings on partners flights are pitiful, especially in premium seats. I would have to spend upwards of $30K on partners just to earn the PQPs to get 1K status. . Its really sad how I am slowly turning away from United – just gave up two credit cards with Chase I used for many many years for almost all purchases. The beneficiary? Delta Airlines. Delta has maintained the waiver on “spend” for overseas loyal customers and I am now 100% with them. So, in my case United’s service had nothing to do with my switch in loyalty. It was them essentially making it impossible for me to get high status. I’m hoping someday they rectify the situation but meanwhile I am enjoying Delta and Diamond status. When international travel starts up again in earnest I will be sticking with Delta, mostly in premium seats.


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