Jet Airways: no longer the best way to fly

Ever since the apparently illogical launch of Jet Konnect, the once premier airline, has been leaving its customers feeling short-changed, says financial risk analyst Amit Sukhram, a frequent flyer

Once, Jet Airways epitomised the best in Indian aviation. It had, in particular, two feathers in its cap. First, it offered a consistently good customer experience, no matter at what point one interacted with them: on the flight, at the airport, over the phone or online. The experience was rarely exceptional – just consistently good. Importantly, there were no unpleasant surprises, particularly if you were a frequent flyer.

Second, it created an innovative structure for its frequent-flyer programme. It broad-based the parameters of loyalty, and clearly differentiated the benefits based upon the loyalty. The only bone one could pick was that even for the most loyal, there wasn't anything exceptional on offer.

 It would have all gone well but for the global aviation crisis in 2008. That's when it faced the acid test of survival. As the saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Not Jet Airways.

Almost overnight, customers began to feel  they were being short-changed, with frequent flyers beginning to feel that they had become the airlines' softest target. Airlines and their frequent fliers have a symbiotic relationship. The evidence suggests Jet Airways didn't, and still doesn't, think so and broke every possible rule in the book of engagement with loyal customers.

To be fair, it first started with the most common knee-jerk reaction to such crises – downsizing. In October 2008, it sacked 1,900 employees. But in the wake of protests by the employees and widespread criticism from political quarters, fuelled by intense media coverage, it backed down and took back all the employees. It was when this downsizing move backfired that Jet decided to train its guns on the customers.

It could have engaged in transparent, honest conversation with its customers. It could have admitted times were tough and certain cost-cutting measures were called for.  Instead it chose to quietly short-change customers without appearing to do so.

Jet Konnect
In May 2009, Jet Airways fired the first salvo on its customers in the form of the launch of Jet Konnect. Jet Konnect was not another airline – it was an effort to create a low-cost brand. Presumably it was legal, but it smelt fishy from the very start.

Consider the introductory mail. It announced Jet Konnect as 'a new way to travel', whatever that might mean.

The key feature of Jet Konnect as highlighted in the mail was that the flights would be no-frills, all economy. The mail went on to say, ''Jet Airways Konnect will be similar to our JetLite product with buy-on-board meal option.''

The mail also suggested that this launch was driven by consumer needs: ''With the current economic downturn, corporate and leisure travellers are seeking value in travel related products. Now with Jet Airways and Jet Airways Konnect, we will be able to cater to all segments of the market on the Jet Airways domestic network.''

All of this begged the question: why did it launch Jet Konnect when it already had the no-frills Jet Lite? This question has never been openly answered.

Twenty days after the introductory mail, Jet hit the frequent fliers with a second mail mentioning one significant difference: flying on Jet Konnect would not entitle one to lounge access.

Now a look at the consequences:

Someone wanting to travel business class would not get that class. Moreover, he or she would get no lounge access.

Someone connecting from a Jet flight to a Jet Konnect flight would again not be entitled to lounge access in transit, irrespective of the class.

Jet was clearly hitting its loyal or big-ticket customers below the belt. This rule remained in force for nearly a year before Jet decided to change it. As a promotional offer to celebrate the first anniversary of Jet Konnect, it announced that frequent fliers would be allowed lounge access for Jet Konnect and Jet Lite.  As of December 2011, they offer lounge access but still refer to this as a ''promotion''.

This wasn't all.  There were other aspects to Jet Konnect, which made the experience for frequent fliers sourer:

Lack of consistency: While it was announced that meals would have to be bought on-board, what transpired later was that on ATR flights, you could only buy cold snacks, not even tea or coffee.  But surprise, surprise: on at least one Jet Konnect sector, passengers were served complimentary hot meals six days a week but with no tea or coffee and no option on the menu.  On the remaining day of the week, they would be served only a complimentary cold snack, again with no option to buy anything else.

This lack of consistency now seems to have hit Jet flights, too. Currently, fliers cannot be sure if they will get a hot meal or will be served a cold snack. They'll have to get on the flight to find out. And as is typical of Jet, there is no announcement as to why this is happening.

Lack of an explanation: There was never a proper explanation for why no newspapers were provided, or why the lack of consistency. In fact, most staffers were unaware of the lack of consistency.

The ambiguity about ''low'' fares: Probably the fishiest aspect of Jet Konnect has been the ambiguity about fares, which continues till today.  The impression sough to be created was that fares on Jet Konnect would be lower than on Jet. While the non-refundable fares offered on Jet Konnect are mostly lower than Jet flights on similar sectors, the full fares are very often the same. Sometimes, though, the full fares on Konnect are actually higher than on Jet.

The ambiguity about which flights are Konnect: Strange as this may sound, if you are frequent flyers and used to flying to a certain sector at a certain time, you might find the scheduled flight to be a Konnect flight on a given day, a Jet flight a few days later and again a Konnect flight a week later.  Even more strangely, in some cases, one leg of a sector is branded as Jet and the other as Konnect.

The fallout of this is not just the uncertainty regarding what meal you will be served or whether you will get newspapers aboard the flight. Fliers had better be sure what flight they are booking, because if they need to cancel their ticket, the charges can be very different in the case of Jet compared to Jet Konnect. For instance, some classes of tickets are refundable under Jet Konnect but non-refundable under Jet.

Redeeming JP Miles
The other area where frequent fliers feel short-changed by Jet Airways has been in seats available for redemption of JP miles. Unknown to most frequent fliers, Jet has discreetly reduced the number of ''redemption seats'' available per flight. So for certain sectors, if earlier a maximum of two seats could be redeemed, now only one seat can be redeemed.  And, in some sectors, this is despite the fact that earlier ATRs were used and now larger Boeings 737s are used. So much for acquiring mileage points.

Ticketing online
Finally, to round off is the issue of booking tickets on www.jetairways.com.

This is something which Jet Airways has been encouraging a lot. Booking is mostly straightforward but with one significant catch: you have to put in a lot of effort to figure out what it would cost you if you were to cancel the ticket.

On the website, economy fares, for instance, are classified as ''Web Special'', ''Special Fares'', ''Check Fares (Restricted)'', ''Check Fares'' and ''Economy''.  There is no explanation as to the difference between these, and clicking on the fares or around them doesn't help.  What Jet Airways expects you to do is to take following steps:

1)  Select any of these fares (even if you can't understand the difference between them)

2)  Scroll down the page and confirm payment for travel insurance, or opt out of it (by default, it assumes you are willing to pay for travel insurance)

3)  Scroll down further and see the trip cost

4)  In case you'd like to know the charges for cancelling this ticket, you need to click on one of two links below the trip cost:

  • "To view change and cancellation charges click here" linking to a link, which will lead to a popup which gives you all the classes under which tickets exist for Jet, Jet Konnect and Jet Lite. You are expected to read through 400 odd words of text to understand how much you lose if you cancel the ticket. It doesn't mention this explicitly, but the way it expects you to do this is to first note the booking class of your tentative booking.

    Then, in the popup, you are expected to look up that class on the table pertaining to the brand / airline you are travelling on, to know the charges. It is important that you click at the right table else you could end up paying more than you bargained for. Sample this:  Classes V, O and W are refundable under Jet Konnect and Jet Lite but non-refundable under Jet.
  • "To view the fare rules in full click here" to another link, which will lead to a popup of around 1,000 words of rules, a lot of which are indecipherable to anyone not familiar with the booking procedure.

5)  If you agree to the cancellation charges, you are ready to move ahead. If for any reason you do not, then you have to repeat steps 1-4 till you are agreeable.

In conclusion, Jet Airways seems to think that its loyal customers don't realise that they are being short-changed.  It could have continued to earn the goodwill of its customers it had a transparent conversation them.  But from offering a consistent experience at one time, it has sunk to a situation where a frequent flyer is no longer sure what to expect.

The reason why Jet Airways continues to thrive is because of the breadth of its network and the fact that there are sectors where it does not face competition.

Ten years ago, these were the only strengths that Indian Airlines possessed.

If Jet Airways continues as it is doing, 10 years from now, it could well be where Indian Airlines (now Air India) is today.