Ben Schlappig lives in the sky.  Using frequent flyer miles, he’s become able to live constantly on planes, and in posh hotels all over the world.  He stays in the nicest places, and is on first name terms with many of the staff.

He never spends more than three days in any one place, and a couple of years ago he sold his Seattle apartment to become homeless.  He was just never there.

Everything Ben does is paid for by frequent flyer miles or credit card loyalty points.  Ben has been collecting since he was 14 and, in a nutshell, Ben has played the system and won.

But Ben freely admits how he’s done it – it’s all in his blog.  The airlines and hotel chains all know about him, but they’re happy enough given the reviews he writes about them.

You see, Ben has become a respected travel pundit.  What started out as a hobby has turned into Ben’s career.

Things are changing, however.  Delta recently switched their loyalty programme so that miles are earned not for how far you fly, but much you spend in real money.  And most airlines now have tier points, which mean membership privileges are earned separately to pure travel miles.

Ben relies on introductory offers, flights with special deals which earn extra miles, and earning more miles from spending his miles.  Ben’s probably reached a point where his airmile-billionaire status is unassailable – but someone like him starting out today might not be able to get quite so far (literally).

So loyalty programmes are not what they were – less generous and pretty undifferentiated.  But then Airlines have realised that loyalty can’t be bought by handing out freebies which barely distinguish one customer from the next.

Air France / KLM (one company since 2004) are a case in point.  They’re developing real-time travel information, tailored and sent to individual passengers as they go from place to place.  Indeed, they were one of the first to launch an Apple Watch app just for this purpose.

Based on who they are and their value to the airline, each person gets individual emails with tailored offers, favours and more info.  Key to this is, of course, having the right data to communicate, and understanding who your best customers actually are (or might come to be).

To that end, airlines like Air France / KLM are merging data sources as diverse as Twitter, weather reports, event info at destinations, passenger bookings , loyalty programme history and web site analytics.  A fascinating mix.

Bringing together such data is not straight-forward, but working with the latest technologies has made that easier and cheaper than ever before.  Becoming data driven is giving them a clear competitive advantage.

The Internet has made data available as never before.  Technology is bringing together amazing sources that were simply unthinkably remote from each other a few years ago.

Data scientists and marketeers are merging it all and, as a result, re-generating the customer care practices of yesterday’s corner shop, treating customers as individuals.

Is it manufactured?  Is it sincere?  Well, I’d ask… was it ever?  It was business then, and it’s business now.  Showing a customer you actually care about their custom and their well-being is not only good for them, it’s good for business too.

 

You can read all about Ben Schlappig here.  Or visit his blog (which has lots of helpful facts and views on airlines!).

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