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You’ve got miles: E-mail account statements arrive

SmarterTravel

Having spent 20 years in travel-industry marketing, I understand better than most the costs associated with marketing communications, including mass media advertising and communications linked to loyalty programs. And as a cost-conscious consumer, I cringe at the prospect of lavish marketing expenditures translating into higher prices, whether that be for airline tickets, prescription drugs, or pump gas. The flip side is that, if the opportunity arises, I gladly forego glossy collaterals in favor of lower prices.

Case in point: My preferred purveyor of mutual funds allows its customers to receive monthly account statements. And, primarily with the goal of doing my part to keep costs (and prices) under control, I have chosen that option. (Now, if I could just convince them to jettison the primetime TV ads with their celebrity shills, and stem the tide of Louvre-worthy printed matter, we might have a real shot at getting their marketing expenses under control.)

If you’re not motivated by cost-control considerations, the other obvious benefits of e-mail publishing are ecological correctness (electronic publishing requiring no deforestation) and timeliness (simplified production allowing for last-minute distribution of time-sensitive information).

AAdvantage Does It Digitally

Feeling as I do about pass-along costs (and being a mileage-obsessed tree-hugger), my interest was piqued when American Airlines announced some time ago that it would be offering AAdvantage members the choice of receiving their statements via e-mail at some unspecified date in the future. I dutifully checked the e-mail option in the preferences section of my online AAdvantage profile, and filed the matter away under “Whenever.”

“Whenever” turned out to be this past week, when I received a long (seven screens-full on my 19″ monitor) e-mail, subject: “AAdvantageGold eSummary At Your Request.” The table of contents promised the following: Account Activity, AAdvantage Newsletter, Special Offers, Personalized Messages, Member Services Links, and AAdvantage Program Partners.

The “Account Activity” section delivers the basic statement line items:

  • Previous Month’s Mileage Balance
  • Total Mileage Posted
  • Total Mileage Adjusted
  • Total Mileage Claimed
  • Total Awards Reinstated
  • Current Mileage Balance

What it doesn’t show is some of the detail included on the monthly paper statement, most notably where the “Total Mileage Posted” was earned. This is important for reconciling your earned-versus-reported mileage. My statement, for example, showed a gain of 10,000 miles for the period, but no indication where those miles were earned. Also included on paper but not e-mail are program (to date) miles, year-to-date elite-qualifying miles and points, and number of miles expiring three years from the last activity date.

The missing data is available online, of course, at American’s website. But I’ve come to expect it on my monthly statement, and there doesn’t seem to be any special technical reason why they stopped short of providing it on the e-mail version. I’m left suspecting American of deliberately using e-mail to drive traffic back to its website.

The “Newsletter” section of the e-mail includes a link to the full newsletter online (in both HTML and Adobe PDF formats), as well as highlights of selected offers with direct links to dedicated offer pages on AA.com. I have only one quibble with this section: nowhere is it clarified whether the e-mail includes summaries of all offers in that month’s newsletter, or just selected offers. In the former case, I still have to visit the website for a comprehensive listing of offers; in the latter case, I don’t.

“Member Services Links” is a reminder that you can change your address, claim an award or make reservations on the AA.com website.

And “AAdvantage Program Partners” is also nothing more than a link to a laundry list of American’s mileage and awards partners. To my way of thinking, this is an appropriate use of linking. Rather than a tease, it references content too extensive to be included on the e-mail.

Over all, the AAdvantage e-mail statement is both a work in progress and a big step in the right direction.

E-Statements: the First Movers

To put this development into historical perspective, while American is the first of the three largest U.S. airlines, they are actually the second carrier to offer its frequent flyer program members the option of receiving account statements via e-mail. US Airways gets credit for being the first to go digital. That was in April, and members who elected to receive the electronic version by June 30 were rewarded with 500 bonus Dividend Miles. Since rolling out the service, over 500,000 Dividend Miles members have chosen the e-mail option. And US Airways reports that feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

Banks have been making account information online for years, but for the most part haven’t gone down the electronic statement road. Brokerages, on the other hand, have been quicker to adopt e-mail broadcast technology. Among the top-tier brokerages and fund companies, both Fidelity and Vanguard allow their customers to receive monthly account summaries via e-mail.

While it might seem that, from the airlines’ perspective, electronic distribution would be significantly more cost-effective than traditional mass mailings, in the short term costs can actually increase. E-mail is cheaper than its paper counterpart on a per-piece basis. However, the costs of developing and deploying the e-mail broadcast system, as well as the overlapping costs of distributing both ways, translate into increased communications costs in the start-up phase.

Next…?

Among the larger programs, United will be making electronic statements available by early next year. In fact, they would probably be offering them now except for the fact that they wanted to be able to offer electronic upgrades as well. And that technology won’t be in place until mid-November. Delta also promises to deliver e-mail statements sometime in early 2001.

And as the Big Three go, so will go the rest of the industry.

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