The Travel Adviser: Cloudy tactics on high?

El Al backtracks on its request from travel agents for details of other firms' frequent fliers.

El Al plane 248, 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
El Al plane 248, 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Psst, want to buy some data? It's highly classified, details of personal and private plans. Where someone flew, how he flew, exact dates and the type of ticket it was. Must be worth a fortune to someone, don't you think? Well, this is exactly what El Al has requested. Frequent flier programs have been around for over twenty years. It is one of the strongest tools an airline has to build loyalty among repeat clients. Passengers often go out of their way to fly a specific airline just to earn those miles. Airlines in turn offer a myriad of goodies, be it upgrade to a higher class, or free tickets to countless destinations. There is a deep consensus amongst travel professionals that the best program among the airlines flying from Israel belongs to El Al. The ease in which clients accumulate points, the simplicity to order a mileage ticket and the levels needed are considerably better than her competitors. Clients rave about the ability of upgraded seats and the ability to give a mileage ticket to anyone they wish. Quite simply El Al's frequent flier program deserves to be lauded. The question though is how to get this message across. Now, I understand competition and have seen countless commercials extolling why one soft drink is better than the other. And I have perused the business sections, reading how this company has a larger market share than that company. Over the years, all of us have been enticed with coupons and giveaways to try some product. No doubt, the marketing mavens have deduced that with these you can be persuaded to switch to their brand. But providing information on where and how somebody flies strikes me as problematic. El Al reached out to the travel agent community last month, requesting hard information on the frequent fliers of several airlines. Their request was simple: "Send us your list of frequent fliers on the following airlines: British Airways, Continental, Delta, Lufthansa and Turkish Air. Send us their ID number, mailing address, cell phone number, email address, and birth date. Send us their complete travel plans from 2008, indicating to where they flew with dates and cities." Now to be fair to El Al, the airline made it a competition among the travel agent community. The agent who sent the most names could win big money - $1,000. And if you sent in the names of frequent fliers of Turkish Airlines, you could win a 500-shekel coupon to be used at a large clothing store. Their stipulation was, that to enter this contest, the passenger could not be a member of El Al's frequent flier program. El Al was trying to woo other airlines' clients and rather than offer new passengers some type of bonus, it figured it was easier to try and poach existing passengers. As you may imagine, this created a huge uproar among the five airlines named by El Al. Enticing new clients may be fair business practice, but in my books this method was not. Humbled and embarrassed, El Al quickly reneged, and added a rather important point: the client must give his permission to send out his personal information! This effectively weakened any strident opposition as all data was shared with the client's knowledge. Still, letters from the other airlines followed, threatening legal action if travel agents shared this information. Pointing out that being a member of each airline's frequent flier program is considered a bonus, they politely asked the agents not to play this game. What nobody seemed to notice was that the basic concept smacked of brazen insolence. I understand the need to obtain hard data, and the information travel agents have on their computers can become golden nuggets. However, when you book with a travel agent there is an understanding that your personal details are confidential and should not be shared, short of a police warrant, with anyone. What El Al should be doing is taking out large advertisements explaining to the general public what a quality program they offer. In fact, seasoned travel agents will not give out details of one's travel plans to any unauthorized person. Clients can feel secure in the knowledge that their travel consultant retains all of their details in a safe place. Credit-card information and traveling details are items that should be kept out of prying and curious hands. Travel agents keep passport numbers and other personal information on file. Ensure that any information you give to your travel agent is kept on a secure server. It should be apparent to all that this is confidential information not to be shared without your written consent. I understand that El Al is facing falling revenues and a deepening recession, with its market share continuing to dwindle. USAir is commencing flights in July non-stop to Philadelphia. Lufthansa is going to fly to Munich in the spring and BMI is adding a second daily flight to London. Thus, El Al correctly feels pressured from all sides, but to resort to this level of pandering is neither professional nor productive. Far better that it continue on the route it has already chosen, offering reasonable fares, with excellent security and one of the best frequent flier programs that exists. Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at