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Canada's Second-Largest Carrier Debuts Mileage Program

This week, Canada's second-largest airline, WestJet, introduced its frequent flyer program. Finally.

The program had been expected to debut last summer, but was delayed in order to iron out kinks in its integration with the airline's reservations system.

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Dubbed Frequent Guest Program, the new loyalty scheme awards WestJet dollars (in lieu of miles) for purchasing WestJet tickets or WestJet Vacations packages, and for using a WestJet RBC MasterCard.

Earned dollars, which expire after five years, can be redeemed like cash toward the purchase of WestJet tickets or WestJet Vacation packages. There are no blackout dates or capacity controls.

So far, so good. But while the airline's press release claims the program was designed to be "simple, open and transparent," it quickly devolves into convolution. Consider:

  • Program members don't earn their first 50 WestJet dollars until they've spent $1,500 on tickets (but not vacations), within a year.
  • After reaching the $1,500 threshold, members earn 2.5 percent of their spend on WestJet tickets and 1 percent on WestJet Vacations.
  • Notwithstanding the high hurdles for flyers, there is no spending threshold for earning WestJet dollars with the program-affiliated credit cards. Depending on whether one signs up for the regular or more expensive World MasterCard, the earning rate is 1 percent or 1.5 percent on purchases charged to the card, 1.5 or 2 percent when charging WestJet tickets or vacations.

Clearly, the requirements and restrictions are meant to target the program to business travelers, who travel often enough to benefit from the high spending thresholds. While earning is less cumbersome with the credit cards, neither the cards' earning rates nor the available awards make them a compelling proposition for frequent buyers.

Deal or No Deal

Unlike some airlines that are less than forthcoming about their programs' limited value to infrequent flyers, WestJet includes the following on the program's webpage:

Is this program right for you? The WestJet Frequent Guest Program is designed for guests who travel for business and/or leisure at least four times per year, or who spend at least $1,500 or more on airfare.

That's certainly part of the story, and WestJet deserves to be commended for being up front about the program's intended limitations. But there's more to consider.

Canada residents will naturally compare the new WestJet offering to Aeroplan, the program affiliated with Air Canada, Canada's largest airline and WestJet's primary competitor.

While Aeroplan imposes the same exasperating limits on award availability that infect other major airlines' programs, Aeroplan is particularly rich in terms of the multitude of opportunities available to both earn miles and use awards. And Aeroplan is structured to deliver value to a wide range of consumers, including shoppers and occasional travelers, not just to high-mileage road warriors.

For the most part, this is a case of preaching to the chorus. Business travelers who already fly WestJet now have another reason to continue doing so. Others are likely to remain unconvinced of any extra reason to switch their allegiance to WestJet.

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