Near Disaster: Chase Ultimate Rewards And Flying Blue

I needed to take a last-minute business trip to Kiev. Cash fares were hovering over $900 one way for one-stop itineraries, so I started looking for opportunities to use points. When I book my own award travel, I optimize for the most efficient use of points and the stand-out value was 25,000 Ultimate Rewards points for an Air France flight. There was a long layover in Paris, but I really like Paris so the 9 hour layover was fine. It’s enough time to visit the Louvre and enjoy a coffee in a sidewalk cafe.

air france economy class seat

Unlike most airlines, Air France touts their economy class cabin. We’ll see if it lives up to the hype!

Unfortunately, the Flying Blue program is an absolute disaster right now. Air France/KLM just switched the chart from a fixed value redemption chart to variable redemptions (which, based on my analysis, is one of the biggest airline devaluations in history–most awards are up a minimum 30% and some are up 500%). It was a total fluke that the flight I wanted still cost 25,000 points, yielding 3.2 cents per point in value all-in (net of taxes/fees I had to pay out of pocket). This is very good redemption value on a ticket for which I would have paid real money. However, the devaluation comes on top of another negative change, removing the award calendar, which has driven call center volumes through the roof (because the only way to search for availability over a range of dates is to call now). Because of this, it can now take 2 hours to get through to an Air France representative.

Of course, my worst nightmare happened. Rather than posting immediately, after I transferred my Chase points, the points didn’t show up. I called Chase, who said that they transferred the points and it was Flying Blue’s fault. I called Flying Blue, and they said they hadn’t received the points so it was Chase’s fault. Both suggested I just wait. So I waited, and waited, and waited. I called to put the seats on hold so they wouldn’t disappear while I was waiting. Eventually I gave up and went to bed.

The following morning, the points still weren’t there. 4 hours before the flight, they still weren’t, so I called Flying Blue again. Fortunately, the friendly representative in the Mexico-based call center had a solution: “We are aware of this issue so we will advance you the points and your account will have a negative balance. When the points post from Chase, your balance will go back to zero.” She put me on hold, then came back a few minutes later to collect my credit card number. And just like that, I had a ticket to Kiev! I didn’t really believe that I did until I went to check in, and the computer spat out boarding passes.

So, certainly a stressful beginning to a trip, but a happy ending. I have no status with Flying Blue. I have never booked a ticket in their program. They don’t know I write this blog. They just thought on their feet and solved the problem by taking a risk (I could have been lying about transferring the points). And so instead of stranding me, which is totally what I expected, I’m now on the way to Kiev.

Summary

Chase is now reading a new telephone script when you call: “It can take from 1-7 days for your points to post after they are transferred.” After slowing down transfers to Korean Air and now Flying Blue, it appears Chase is trying to make Ultimate Rewards less valuable by making it impossible to redeem them for last-minute flights. This doesn’t appear to be a technical glitch; based on the policy change being communicated by their telephone agents, it seems to be deliberate. Also, there is nothing in writing on Chase’s Web sites to communicate the change, so people are going into this process with no idea that points transfers are no longer instantaneous.

Generally speaking, I like the Chase Ultimate Rewards program better than American Express Membership Rewards. However, the ability to have immediate use of transferred points is key. Award travel inventory is dynamic (a seat that is available now likely won’t be in a couple of days, particularly to a popular destination) and most of the value in keeping your points with a bank program instead of an airline program comes from the immediate ability to transfer and redeem points. There are fewer reasons to collect bank points instead of airline points if you aren’t able to easily redeem them for awards.

Airline points programs are rapidly losing credibility so it would be bad for consumers if banks to go the same direction and make points harder to redeem.

5 thoughts on “Near Disaster: Chase Ultimate Rewards And Flying Blue

  1. James Mendelsohn says:

    Near Disaster Flying Blue, the total mess:
    The Flying Blue loyalty program is utterly unwilling to live up to its promises, which its customer service makes clear. The actions of the program and Delta that I will relate are a bright yellow warning light about their service–a serious one because it shows an unwillingness to honor their compensation program even when they’ve stated it outright. Flying Blue has created a systemic problem that delays response to customers, defeats consumer efforts to claim their privileges, and provides no one to call them to accountability.

    And here’s why I state that (I apologize in advance for the length of this):

    I’m an elite Flying Blue member who has experienced what I’d call a systemic problem in the Flying Blue service–meaning I can’t get redress when I’ve clearly been wronged and think the same problem will arise for every FB member.

    Heres’ what I mean:

    1) I’m a US resident and citizen but a silver level Flying Blue after only 9 months of membership, a full-on dedication to flying them and their partner Delta. I’m nearly silver status this year after 8 months only.

    2) In January I booked a premium economy cross-continental flight on Delta for late March, from JFK to SFO, but I was denied complimentary upgrade in spite of it being a stated Flying Blue privilege to be honored within 24 hours of the flight; in spite of my having that confirmed in writing–an email from an FB/Air France rep at Delta months in advance (Because their website didn’t indicate I had the privilege, so I wrote them); and confirmed by phone within 24 hours of the flight. The denial came at the gate and at the service desk of Delta, the latter telling me I’d have to take this up with Flying Blue but it wasn’t going to happen for this flight.

    3) What followed was nearly 5 months of repeated emails and phone calls after refusal to address the issue, done in a way that suggests the systemic problem I suggested above.

    4) I contacted Flying Blue immediately onboard the outgoing flight in the hopes the issue would be addressed in time for my return flight in 8 days. I did so using the Flying Blue chat element of its website onboard. The chat person directed me to email and then to follow up with a phone call when I made it to San Francisco. This was to send me down the rabbit hole, as I discovered in the ensuring months.

    5) In SF, the Flying Blue phone person I contacted on the day I arrived said they do not have access to the emails until their email people respond (I now know from a phone service person that the phone and email folks are in the same office, visible in the room but forbidden to contact each other. Yikes.)

    6) Eight days later, I’d heard nothing. I called, was told that the only thing they could do is have their phone supervisor look into it. The supervisor would not get onto the phone but confirmed they had my email. I was denied the privilege on the return flight.

    7) After weeks back in New York, I called again and was told I would have to wait on the email personnel, but I should resubmit the email. I did (with all documentation and the history of what had transpired so far.

    8) Weeks later, now in May, I received a cryptic email reply stating that my complaint would be forwarded to Air France. Huh? This was about Flying Blue.

    9) Nothing happened for weeks more, in spite of my calling repeatedly and the phone people throwing up their hands because, they said, they could do nothing. Only the email people could respond–the very people they sent me to. Their supervisors would not get on the phone; and when one supervisor said he could do nothing without evidence–relayed that response–I offered it but he refused to give out an email for him.. By then I’d spent hours of my time. I began to reconsider my loyalty to Flying Blue.

    10) On July 12, nearly 4 months since my flights in late March, I received an email from Flying Blue, stating that they were sorry for the lack of service and the long delay in responding; they would forward the matter to “the relevant” authorities.

    11) I responded that this is really beyond the pale. This was their responsibility. They’d instituted a system of phone service and email service that defeated customers from contacting them continuously and from anyone taking full responsibility. I was considering spending out my Flying Blue miles and dedicating myself to flights other than Air France, KLM, and Delta. I asked for compensation for my time–a fair amount given the amount of time and the breach in trust and denial of stated privilege (along the way, I had some who denied this was ever a privilege. It was and is: it was listed on the FB website until it was scrubbed for their April 1 change in the program. It was confirmed with me last week in writing from a Delta person.) I gave FB until the end of the month, August 1, to make good, at which point I’d email you folks and others, hoping you’d take this matter up on your websites, Facebook, twitter, and instagram postings–about the service, not about my case.

    12) When August 1 rolled around, nothing happened save one thing: on about August 2, someone from Delta called and then emailed me. The email confirmed this was my privilege and I was denied it. The agent, Samantha Clark, and I spoke last week: She’d been given, it turns out, partial information by Flying Blue, told only that on one flight I was denied a privilege, not two; and told nothing of what had transpired. She added FB miles to my account, said that if she were me, she “would have been livid.” She said the more serious need for redress and compensation was not something Delta could handle. That was on Flying Blue. (I think this is likely not as black and white as she states, that Delta’s involvement with Flying Blue in the US is greater than this, but frankly I do not know.)

    12) In sum, this is a systemic problem that delays response, defeats consumer efforts to claim their privileges, and has no one to call them to accountability.

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