With a spate of attractive offers, bonus miles and free trips for the asking, the sky is really the limit for frequent flyers in the UAE. And the presence of some of the world's top airlines in the country is proving to be the icing on the cake, say those in the industry.
"Travel statistics for the UAE are staggering," says Dean Proctor, Citibank Cards business head in the UAE. "We are living in one of the most dynamic frequent flyer markets on the globe with the number of outbound flights expected to increase by 12 per cent in 2009.
"This certainly calls for a solid value proposition to address the travel needs of UAE residents."
According to statistics available with officials, more than 25 million passengers passed through the gates of Dubai International airport in 2007.
In 2006, that number stood at a little over 21 million. The multi-million dirham expansion project currently underway at the airport is expected to cater to more than 70 million passengers per year.
Last month, Proctor's company launched a campaign with Emirates airlines where customers can directly accumulate up to 40,000 air miles by signing up for a credit card. An economy class ticket from Dubai to Nairobi in Kenya, for instance, can be exchanged with 35,000 Skywards miles – the airline's loyalty card scheme.
Emirates Islamic Bank's credit cards division also launched their new offering last month where cardholders get up to one Skywards mile for every dirham spent.
"Travel is an integral part of the lives of many of our customers and through this partnership we are able to add huge value to their travel," says Faisal Aqil, general manager, retail, at Emirates Islamic Bank.
Skywards is already in partnership with Emirates Bank, which also offers credit cards linked directly to travel points. The credit card, launched in 2003, awards its customers meMILES for every dollar spent, which is then converted to 0.8 Skywards miles.
And that is making customers like Nikhil Lohade, 32, happy. Lohade, a Dubai-based market analyst, says he has travelled the world thanks to the miles he has gained as a result.
"I use my credit card for all my purchases and the meMILES convert to Skywards miles, so it's really convenient," he says.
"I transferred meMILES in exchange for 31,500 Skyward miles which bought me a ticket to Kenya last year worth Dh2,000.
"Emirates also had a scheme where you bought a Sony Ericsson phone for Dh7,000 and you got 120,000 skyward miles and it bought me a ticket to Milan. I have now collected enough miles for my trip to Cape Town on business class worth Dh13,000 as the airline has halved the miles needed for its new flights to this destination."
Brian Labelle, the senior vice president of Skywards, says there are now 3.5 million members to the rewards scheme, after seven years in operation.
"Credit cards and more specifically co-branded cards are a very effective marketing tool for both the frequent flyer plans and the financial institutions," he says.
"These cards provide members with an additional opportunity to earn miles, increasing their interaction with the programme and thus giving the organisations ability to build a relationship and brand loyalty." But Emirates is not the only one. Other airlines say association with other service providers has led to a rise in their customer base, and is therefore a win-win situation for them, the partnering banks and the travelling customer.
Abu Dhabi-headquartered Etihad launched its HSBC Etihad Guest Card in November 2006, which now has an excess of 25,000 members. Members earn Etihad Miles for every one dollar spent on purchase transactions and two Etihad Miles for every three dollars spent with their Privilege and Classic Cards.
Barry Green, the head of customer relations manager and loyalty at Etihad Airways, says membership numbers for the airline's loyalty cards are growing.
"In less than two years, we have gained 350,000 new members from across 180 countries and expect to break the half million mark by the end of this year.
"Within the industry, it is widely accepted that a loyalty programme increases revenue by between 10-15 per cent. That has been our experience." Amanda Ball, British Airways' regional operations manager for the Middle East and Pakistan says customers can benefit from a wide range of services besides accumulating flying miles.
"The Executive Club allows British Airways to offer its most frequent travellers benefits all over the world as reward and recognition for their continued custom," she says. "Customers who join the Executive Club can accumulate both points and miles on every flight when they travel on a full fare economy, World Traveller Plus, Club World or First ticket."
Many of the loyalty and credit cards also feature easy access through the airports, extra luggage weight, special discounts at hotels and exclusive entry to events.
An official from Air Miles, a shopping rewards scheme, says the programme's partners have seen a massive rise in their customer base.
"We are partnered with HSBC, Spinneys, Royal Sun Alliance and Damas and the statistics are impressive," says CEO Dave Battiston. "With HSBC, there has been a 29 per cent increase in credit card spend and 50 per cent card acquisition and Damas recording a 20 per cent rise in sales since the partnership. We started with six partners and we now have 125 and from 100,000 members in the first year we are now 1.2 million today.
"Air Miles card can be redeemed against jewellery and electronics goods among other things and thrill-seeking activities such as parachute jumping.
"A flight to the sub continent, for instance, would be in the range of 95,000 points with a diamond ring requiring around 50,000 air miles."
In March 2006, National Bank of Dubai (NBD) launched a credit card with Dnata, the Dubai- based travel provider.
The NBD-Dnata Credit Card gives customers reward points every time they use their card for travel. The points accumulated can then be redeemed at selected Dnata outlets for any of their products or services, including tickets from about 130 airlines, holiday packages and other services.
According to Sangeeta Pendurkar, regional chief marketing officer for HSBC Middle East, when it comes to loyalty cards, companies and their marketeers have one goal. "Any reward programme is designed to reward and retain loyal customers," she says.
Get Your Card
There are various credit cards available in the UAE which can help you accumulate air miles that can be redeemed for tickets or upgrades.
- Emirates Islamic Bank's association with Emirates Skywards card entitles credit card holders up to one Skywards mile for every dirham spent.
- Emirates Bank also has a credit card which is linked to Skywards. Launched in 2003, its customers earn meMILES for every dollar spent, which is then converted to 0.8 Skywards miles.
- Etihad launched its HSBC Etihad Guest Card in November 2006. Members earn Etihad Miles for every one dollar spent on purchase transactions and two Etihad Miles for every three dollars spent with their Privilege and Classic Cards.
- In March 2006, National Bank of Dubai (NBD) launched a credit card with Dnata, the Dubai- based travel provider. The NBD-Dnata Credit Card gives customers reward points every time they use their card for travel and can be redeemed against Dnata packages.
- Citibank and Emirates' Sign and Fly campaign offers up to 40,000 free Skywards miles for customers who sign up for new credit cards.