Loyalty must be a priority for airlines

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There's an interesting square dance going on in the airline world, with Delta Air Lines and Northwest getting serious about merger talks while Continental Airlines and United parent UAL Corp. are said to be pondering a deal of their own to avoid being dwarfed by such an entity.

Few consumer service companies have such a precarious and volatile relationship with their customers as do airlines. The days of fierce loyalty among customers is no longer something they can rely on; a combination of fundamental service issues, and steady erosion of loyalty benefits, have lessened the appeal of being a one-airline family or company. Bringing in other earning opportunities through retail partnerships has proved beneficial to loyalty programs' survival, but has also served to dilute the airlines' brands.

In a climate where analysts are predicting higher fares being a byproduct of the potential mergers, loyalty as an organizational concept rather than a mere program has to be top of mind. More than anything else, what's needed is an acknowledge­ment that customer loyalty isn't just about consumers' quests for tangible incentives. It's a framework that any company (not just an airline) must build through all levels of the orga­nization, from the CEO to call center staff to frontline agents, in which customers know they're being listened to, and their concerns are being dealt with.

The airlines mulling these mergers have phenomenal data­bases full of rich information about the people who pick their flights and credit cards over their rivals' for a variety of reasons. Roughly half of these people will find themselves in a different program if these deals go through, and it's critical that any company about to go through a merger doesn't wait until that point to do the retention work. Start the loyalty work while the customers are still, well, loyal.

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