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New Aeroplan: The Aftermath, Six Months Later

Six months ago, Air Canada launched their brand-new Aeroplan loyalty program to much fanfare. We’ve all had plenty of time to play around with our shiny new toys, pad our Aeroplan balances with some juicy credit card offers, and make a speculative booking (or 10).

In this article, I wanted to take stock of how the new Aeroplan program has turned out during its first six months of existence. Has the new program’s launch been an operational success? What kinks remain to be ironed out? And what golden opportunities have emerged for us to maximize? Let’s assess the aftermath of Air Canada’s new Aeroplan as things stand so far.

Air Canada Flight Rewards

Dynamic pricing on Air Canada flights was one of the big changes heralded by the new program. By marking the points price more closely to the underlying cash fare, this would allow Air Canada to open up every last seat on their flights to members who wished to redeem Aeroplan points.

Still, Air Canada continued to publish a range of points required for each geographic zone, even though the actual prices could swing higher or lower than it.

There’s been a bit of confusion as to how these published ranges are supposed to work. While the initial communications had seemed to suggest that something like 80% of flights on a given route would fall into the range or 80% of dates would have flights that fall into the range, it was recently clarified that the true intention is for 80% of all flight redemptions across the Air Canada network based on past redemption patterns to fall within the published range.

That leaves the door open for certain routes to consistently fall outside of the published ranges, depending on the underlying economics of the route.

Thinking back to our “What Still Doesn’t Look Right?” article, routes like Ottawa–Montreal or Vancouver–Sandspit would appear to fit into this category, consistently pricing above the published short-haul range (and therefore continuing to “not look right”) despite their modest distances.

The well-documented “million points to Australia” problem is another symptom of this, as it reflects the challenging economics of pandemic-era scheduled flights to Australia, even though this is expected to clear up by the time Australia opens their borders.

And even on something like the Toronto–Vancouver trunk route – as anyone who has tried to book business class awards can attest to, the dynamic pricing model can make the published ranges a rather unreliable guide unless you’re flexible enough to pick the only flight at the lower end of the range within a three-day period.

Verdict: Average. On one hand, for Aeroplan’s most dedicated user base, the dynamic pricing model has more downsides than upsides. It’s hard to predict how many points we’ll need for a given Air Canada award, and there are some routes where the published ranges are simply not at all a reliable indicator.

On the other hand, you could argue that the Toronto–Vancouver flights pricing at 50,000, 100,000 or even 150,000 points one-way in business class would’ve never been available under the old program in the first place, and the new program now provides us with more options to book these seats.

Not only can we shell out 50,000+ points if we really wanted to, we could also apply the “Latitude Attitude” using our eUpgrades when business class bookings are disproportionately expensive.

On the international side, we’ve been able to make some dynamically-priced bookings that fall below what we’d pay under the old program, especially if we have preferred pricing working in our favour. Time will tell whether these favourable price points remain in place once travel picks up again following the pandemic.

Partner Airline Flight Rewards

While Air Canada flight rewards are subject to dynamic pricing, partner flight redemptions follow a fixed award chart, which lends a greater degree of predictability to the number of Aeroplan points you need for your trip.

The sweet spots have been well-documented: ANA business class from Vancouver to Tokyo for 55,000 points; Etihad Airways business class and First Class en route to the Middle East, the Maldives, or even South East Asia; the usual suspects of Lufthansa, Swiss, Turkish, and TAP en route to Europe. And of course, ending your trip in Bangkok or Singapore even if you’re headed to the Indian Subcontinent, otherwise known as “Atlantic/Pacific arbitrage”.

In fact, we’re very much playing with a weakened hand right now in terms of making partner bookings, given the extent to which the global pandemic has decimated airlines’ route networks.

Once things pick up a bit in the future, I’m looking forward to some of the more popular high-end redemptions of the past – EVA Air business class, Lufthansa First Class, etc. – coming back into play.

It’s just a shame that the Etihad A380 First Class Apartments don’t seem like they’ll see the light of day again.

Verdict: Very good. Partner award redemptions have come through in line with our expectations at the outset, and we can look forward to more aspirational partner awards (and of course, actually being able to fly them) in the future.

Online Search Engine

One of the most highly anticipated transformations of the new Aeroplan program was the online search engine, which was expected to improve significantly upon the clunky “orange” engine of the old program.

With every search, up to 150 search results are delivered in an impressively short amount of time. And alongside the much wider set of search results, the ability to sort and filter those results based on a comprehensive series of criteria is another welcome addition.

Having said that, it has definitely been a bit disappointing that the multi-city search engine cannot properly price out the stopover on a one-way bound for 5,000 points, and anyone wishing to make use of this feature needs to book through the call centre (more on that later).

In terms of improvements to the online experience, Aeroplan has announced:

  • A calendar search feature will arrive later in 2021, with the first phase only showing the lowest points price in any class of service on any given date, and the next phase introducing the ability to filter by class of service.
  • An improved multi-city search engine will arrive later in 2021, allowing members to book stopovers on a one-way bound for 5,000 points. However, the full “Custom Routing” search feature that lets us build six-bound 16-segment itineraries will not be online until 2022.

While I do understand the challenges associated with ambitious IT endeavours like these, it’s also a bit disappointing that they’re both a little bit behind schedule at this six-month mark.

Verdict: Average. Compared to the old one, the new online search engine gives me a dopamine hit every time I use it. I’d love for some of the much-anticipated new features – especially the multi-city search engine – to launch as soon as possible to get the dopamine flowing even more freely.

New Partners

When the new program was announced in the summer of 2020, we were told that only about 60% of the program had been revealed thus far, and the remainder would focus a lot on establishing new partnerships with other well-loved travel and lifestyle brands to further increase the earning and redeeming proposition for Aeroplan members.

Since then, Aeroplan has further linked up with Air Serbia, Virgin Australia, and Air Dolomiti on the airline side, as well as Starbucks Canada to allow members to earn points on their daily coffee habits. I have to say, I’ve been very impressed by the pace at which Aeroplan is building out their partner portfolio, and I have no doubt that even more exciting partnerships are in the pipeline.

Verdict: Outstanding. I can’t think of any other loyalty program in the world that has aggressively pursued more airline partnerships the way Aeroplan has.

Most loyalty programs are happy to rest on their laurels allowing their members access to the Star Alliance or Oneworld network, but Aeroplan has recognized that there are so many more global airlines that could serve their members, both in terms of quality (Etihad Airways, Vistara, etc.) and in geographic coverage (Virgin Australia, Azul Brazilian Airlines, etc.)

Aeroplan promises even more global airline partnerships to come. Meanwhile, on the non-airline side, Aeroplan has hinted at striking up partnerships in the hotel and car rental market, as well as further bilateral agreements like the Starbucks one, oriented towards daily earning and redeeming opportunities.

Given their track record so far, I can’t wait to see what Aeroplan has in store for us.

Credit Cards

Well, there’s been quite a few twists and turns on this one, no?

As you may recall, the sheer anticipation of elevated Aeroplan credit card welcome bonuses as of the program’s launch had come to a somewhat anticlimactic end, as many of the new TD and CIBC products had launched with very low Aeroplan points amounts, accompanied by the all-new Air Canada Buddy Pass.

(And yes, the Buddy Pass offers value to the right type of traveller, but I think it’s fair to say that it wasn’t what most of us were looking for.)

At the turn of the year, TD and CIBC bumped up their offers, putting them on par with some of the better offers we had seen under the old program. Still, compared to the “something amazing” that Aeroplan had teased us about prior to the program’s launch, I wouldn’t begrudge you if you continued to feel underwhelmed.

But as they say, good things come to those who wait. In late March 2020, Aeroplan introduced the ability to convert the Air Canada Buddy Pass into 30,000 Aeroplan points, instantly changing the game when it comes to the welcome bonuses on six of the 11 co-branded cards.

The conversion opportunity has since been extended on an indefinite basis, allowing anyone to earn, say, 50,000 Aeroplan points through TD and CIBC’s core products with a First Year Free offer an only $1,000 in minimum spend – as long as these offers are active.

Remember, TD’s current cycle of welcome bonuses comes to an end on May 30, 2021, and it’s anyone’s guess whether the next bonus will be quite as generous as it is now.

Verdict: Outstanding – for now. After the initial anticipation of “something amazing” left us feeling rather parched as of the program’s launch, our collective thirst for juicy welcome bonuses has finally been quenched as of the spring of 2021.

I’d be very surprised if the bonuses ever get better than they are now, so make no mistake about it: right now is very much the golden age for earning Aeroplan points.

Aeroplan Elite Status

Altogether, there hasn’t been too much movement on the Aeroplan Elite Status side, both in terms of actual changes as of the launch and any new developments since then.

Air Canada’s only major step was to extend everyone’s status through to the end of 2022, and also offer members the ability to use their 2021 flying activity to get a head start towards achieving or retaining status in 2022.

The official launch of Everyday Status Qualification also allows us to make meaningful progress towards status qualification even though we aren’t flying much.

Verdict: Good. Aeroplan Elite Status has been a relatively quiet component of the program, and the limited action we’ve seen here has been positive.

A powerful status-oriented promotion in the mold of last year’s Travel at Home event – perhaps offering a way to earn Status Qualifying Dollars (SQD) outside of flying activity – would bump up our assessment even further.

Program Operations

Granting the fact that a loyalty program relaunch must be an extremely demanding undertaking, let’s evaluate how the new Aeroplan program has performed on the operational side.

In terms of the Aeroplan contact centre, my assessment of things is that it’s a lot like it was before: a real mixed bag.

There are some truly outstanding agents who are well-acquainted with the new rules, open to trying new things, and willing to work with you patiently even if your request is fairly outlandish.

(I’ll never forget the agent who did everything they could to try to break a “married segment” on Etihad Airways, and when I suggested making the intermediate point a stopover of longer than 24 hours instead to break up the segments, she went ahead and made it happen – without charging me 5,000 more points, since it was part of a schedule change!)

Then there are some agents who aren’t quite up to scratch, which shouldn’t be a surprise in and of itself, because those same agents would’ve been there under the old program as well. Sure, even the best agents may have gaps in their knowledge and training, but it’s when an agent doesn’t know the rules and has an attitude about it (“Nuh uh, there’s no way you can add a stopover on a one-way”) that I find really grating.

I’m willing to cut the agents some slack at the end of the day, since I’m sure there’s been a lot of new stuff to learn, and perhaps their training could’ve been better too. I even heard through the grapevine that one agent had mentioned that they’ve found Prince of Travel’s resources to be much more effective for learning the new program than their own internal training materials. 😉

One area in which Aeroplan cannot be granted any leeway, however, is the chaotic rollout of the Aeroplan eStore and the resultant widespread issue of the “missing 5,000 points” from the Black Friday promotion

While I’m sympathetic to the fact that IT issues can always occur, I don’t think there’s any excuse for rolling out a new eStore that functions far less effectively than the previous eStore. 

Six months on, Aeroplan members’ Black Friday points appear to be gradually posting here and there, although most members had to spend valuable time following-up on their missing points over the past few months.

The eStore issues appear to be slowly getting resolved over time, too, although it’ll be a while until anyone can fully trust that their eStore points will reliably post to their account. 

There have also been a few other glitches and errors along the way, such as Family Sharing not working for certain users or points mysteriously disappearing from people’s accounts on a few occasions. As far as I can tell, these have all been fixed promptly when they came to Aeroplan’s attention, which is really all you can ask for. 

Verdict: Poor. While most features of the program have been running smoothly, the Aeroplan eStore has been a notable operational weakness over the past few months, especially as it appeared to be less effective than the previous eStore.

Aeroplan’s leadership recently publicly apologized for the poor rollout of the eStore offering, as they very much should have, and I’m hoping it won’t be long until we see a fully functional eStore that can post your points within a few business days. 

Communication

That brings me to the final criterion. How well has the new loyalty program communicated and built trust with its members?

Truth be told, this wouldn’t even be a topic of discussion if we were talking about any other loyalty program besides Aeroplan. Canada’s largest frequent flyer program has set the bar far above its peers in terms of communicating transparently with its members, very much upholding the notion that “loyalty is a two-way street”. 

On a recent livestream with Anshul from Points, Miles & Bling, Aeroplan’s leadership answered members’ questions, explained the logic behind many of their decisions in designing the program, and offered some very generous allowances when they were really under no obligation to do so:

  • Members who had signed up for a premium Aeroplan credit card in January or February 2021 can still ask for their eUpgrades to be rolled over, even though the terms and conditions state they had to be a cardholder by December 2020.
  • Members can convert their Buddy Pass into 30,000 Aeroplan points as long as they applied for the card by the deadline of the conversion opportunity, rather than having to have the Buddy Pass in their account by then (of course, the deadline was subsequently dropped, and now the opportunity is open-ended).

Speaking of the Buddy Pass conversion opportunity, that idea in itself had also originated from one of Anshul’s previous livestreams with Aeroplan’s leadership, too.

The program really didn’t have to assign such a generous value to the Buddy Pass, and it isn’t even being publicly advertised as an acquisition offer at all – they simply did it to make their most engaged users a little bit more engaged.

Verdict: Outstanding. Aeroplan has been open, transparent, and receptive to new ideas from its most dedicated user base. That’s a real breath of fresh air among loyalty programs, and we’re lucky to have that here in Canada. 

Over the years, other programs have taught us to expect silent devaluations and PR fluff pieces that play fast and loose with the definition of the word “enhancement”.

On the other hand, Aeroplan may change stuff over time – they’ve left themselves plenty of levers to do so, given the dynamic nature of Air Canada redemptions, fare category premiums, Points + Cash valuations, and so on – but the program’s leadership will always have our respect as long as they maintain an open line. 

Conclusion

Six months on, Aeroplan’s performance has just about exceeded my expectations.

While there have been hiccups and delays along the way, those have certainly been made up for by the sheer generosity of the Buddy Pass conversion opportunity, the relentless pursuit of new airline and non-airline partnerships, and the program’s commendable level of transparency with its member base. 

Aeroplan’s leadership harbours ambitions to build a truly world-class loyalty program that Canadians can be proud of. Based on their performance thus far, I’m confident that the program will be able to iron out its existing kinks and deliver upon that promise.