I saw another one of those dreaded "announcements" from Aeroplan announcing mileage accumulation changes, this time for flights on United Airlines. Aeroplan card holders will now find it even more difficult to achieve the various "Altitude" status levels when collecting Aeroplan miles from some key partners.
I suppose it was only a matter of time. Last year, Aeroplan introduced "Tango" flights for the Israel route and other international destinations. With these tickets, passengers only accumulate 50% of the Aeroplan miles. Plus, these fares are not eligible for free upgrades to first class. It would take 20 round trip flights in a year between Toronto and Tel-Aviv on these fares to be eligible for "super elite" status (now called s100k).
Until now, there was at least one way around this problem. Passengers could fly United from Toronto to Tel-Aviv (through Newark Airport) and still collect 100% of the air miles, even at the cheapest air fares. Now this latest announcement from Aeroplan indicates that most of the cheapest air fares on United will only provide accumulation of 50% mileage, effective March 31, 2014. This was already the case with Swiss, Lufthansa, Austrian, Turkish and other partner airlines. The long and the short of it is that if you are flying with the least expensive air fares, it is getting harder and harder to accumulate Aeroplan points. It is also worth pointing out that US Air is leaving the Star Alliance effective March 31, 2014 - so perhaps it is no coincidence that United made the change once it realized it had no Star Alliance competition between the U.S. and Israel.
This is not the only negative change that Aeroplan has introduced. Over the past few years, the "tax and fuel surcharge" has skyrocketed on Aeroplan tickets. So, let's say you want to use 80,000 points to get a "free" ticket on Air Canada. It will cost you $680-$800 in "fuel surcharges." Aeroplan calls these charges "tax and fuel surcharges." But they aren't really fooling consumers. These "fuel surcharges" allow for significant profit for Aeroplan on "free" tickets. They aren't really "fuel surcharges." They are simply ticket charges. Paying $800 in surcharges to go to Israel in the winter, for example, is absurd. You could probably find a ticket on another airline, taxes in, for close to $900, without wasting 80,000 points.
In fact, I looked into taking a trip to Montreal two weeks ago from Toronto. The "surcharge" was $170. A ticket with Porter would only cost $199, taxes in, if you could find a deal. So what kind of "free" ticket is that.when you have to pay $170 AND 15,000 points?
This year, Aeroplan introduced "e-upgrade charges." If you are not Super Elite and you want to upgrade your seat on a transatlantic flight into the first class cabin, it will now cost $500, if there happens to be room. Up until this year, there was no charge. That was one of the incredible benefits of flying Air Canada regularly - the ability to upgrade for free when there was space available. I guess these changers are all intended to ensure that only the customers paying the much higher fares, on a regular basis, will get the benefits (that they probably won't need as much anyways).
Overall, it seems unlikely that I will come close to making Superelite status this year and it sounds like it will be less and less worthwhile to even try. Mileage accumulation has become harder and harder, benefits have been reduced significantly and some of the better benefits have been eliminated.
To really try to fool everyone, Aeroplan rolled out its "Distinction" program to run parallel to its Aeroplan program. Nobody that I have spoken to has been able to determine that there any benefits whatsoever of this program. At first, the program made it sound like customers could, by achieving "Distinction" status, get discounted rates on Aeroplan tickets. The advertised discount was as high as 35%. But, on close reflection, people realized that Aeroplan is only offering the discount on "market rate" fares. So in other words, let's say that an Aeroplan ticket to Israel would go for 80,000 points. Aeroplan might say they are "sold out" and the market rate is now 130,000 or even 200,000. (Or some other ridiculous, inflated, arbitrary number). "Distinction" status holders will get their percentage discount on that number. So instead of being able to pay $750 for a "free" ticket along with 80,000 points, you can now pay about 84,500 and $750, when the "market rate" is 130,000 points. If the "market rate" is 200,000....well, you follow?
For someone flying back and forth on a long haul flight - like the Toronto-Tel-Aviv route, seven or eight times a year, this was enough, up until last year, to earn Super-Elite status and get some great benefits like free upgrades, double Aeroplan miles, wider available for "free" tickets and other perqs. You could do this, even while buying the cheapest fares. But now, it looks like you would have to pay an average of at least $300 to $500 more per ticket, which adds up considerably.
The difficulty is that there are very few options for Canada-Israel "commuters." El Al still lacks the same in-flight amenities and has a horrible mileage accumulation program. If an El Al ticket would get passengers full mileage accumulation on another system's program, that might start to make the decision a bit more complicated.
Ultimately, for a direct flight between Toronto and Tel-Aviv, Air Canada still offers the most convenient flight from Toronto and significantly better service. The flight leaves at 5:30 p.m. and flies overnight, arriving in Israel at about 11:00 a.m. This is a great schedule, although it would probably be better if it were to leave around 8:00 or even 9:00 p.m.
The flight back on Air Canada, which is a 13 hour day time flight, is atrocious. It leaves at 12:30 p.m. Israel time and arrives at 6:30 p.m. in Toronto. The flight goes on forever. For flights from Israel to Toronto, in my view, it is better to fly El Al or take United through New Jersey on its overnight flight. At least that way, you can get some sleep.
Overall, the cumulative effect of all of these changes at Aeroplan is that the program seems to become worse and worse each year, while the benefits seem to be fewer and fewer. Its quite unfortunate. Maybe one day, some other airline, like Westjet, will start offering flights back and forth to Israel at a reasonable price with decent amenities. For now, there are even fewer good choices.