Customers say Air Miles explanation for hiding rewards 'doesn't add up'

Customer outcry continues after CBC News revealed that Air Miles blocks members from accessing certain rewards. The loyalty program says more active members get access to more rewards but some collectors claim the opposite is true.

Air Miles says more active members get more rewards, but some customers don't buy that

Katherine McLaughlin in Oakville, Ont. says she ended up wasting about 6,000 miles on items she didn't want. (Katherine McLaughlin)

Customer outcry continues after a CBC News story revealed that Air Miles blocks members from accessing certain rewards.

The story included disgruntled collectors who said that when they logged into the Air Miles website using an account with few miles, they saw premium merchandise they didn't have enough miles to get. ​But when using a different account with many miles — enough to acquire those premium products — the same items vanished.

Air Miles explains it tailors the loyalty program so that more active collectors get access to more rewards such as merchandise and travel.

But that explanation has only further angered some collectors who claim it just doesn't add up.

"[Air Miles] just seem[s] to be digging themselves into a deeper hole," concludes Patrick Sojka with the resource site Rewards Canada.

Sorry, you can't have it

Katherine McLaughlin recently contacted CBC News in a fury because she couldn't redeem her miles for a Bose Wave music system.

When she logged in on the Air Miles website using her account, she saw the item advertised for 6,900 miles. McLaughlin was thrilled she had finally found something she wanted, considering that some of her miles would expire in the new year.

The Oakville, Ont., resident had the required points, so she clicked on the ad. That's when she discovered she was blocked from getting the product.

When Katherine McLaughlin tried to redeem her Air Miles for this Bose sound system, she was blocked from getting it. (CBC)

McLaughlin complained to an Air Miles online customer service rep who — according to a transcript of the conversation — told her that collectors get a "tailored experience," which, for her, didn't include the music system. 

The explanation didn't sit well with McLaughlin. "I've earned those rewards over the years," she says. "To me, it's unethical and simply bad faith."

Who's reaping the rewards?

CBC News asked Air Miles, which is owned by Toronto-based company LoyaltyOne, for more details about the tailored experience.

"The more active you are in the program, the more selection of rewards is available to you," claimed spokeswoman, Kahina Haffad in an email.

She explained that activity levels are based on how often members collect miles and redeem them for rewards.

But when CBC News looked into the issue, it didn't appear to work out that way. 

On the day that McLaughlin was prevented from getting a music system, CBC News logged in using an Air Miles account and found that we could access the item. However, we didn't have enough points to buy it. 

The account that CBC News used has only 1,098 miles with just 111 collected over the past 12 months.

McLaughlin has 7,547 miles and collected a total of 270 over the same period — close to 2.5 times our amount.

Neither account has been used to redeem miles for years.

So if more active members receive more rewards, one wonders why we had access to the music system and McLaughlin — who appears to be the more active user — didn't.

"I don't buy what they're saying," says McLaughlin, about the Air Miles explanation for how rewards are tailored. Instead, she suspects that perhaps members get to see premium rewards they can't have right now "to make the program look enticing."

Complaining might help

CBC News also spoke with Air Miles collector Nicole Heisler in Calgary. She says her husband, Derek, redeemed a chunk of his close to 10,000 miles in July for a rowing machine and a camera.

The couple was hoping for a Dyson fan and two gaming devices that Heisler had seen previously when she logged in using her account. But those items didn't appear when Derek was looking to redeem his miles.

The next day, Heisler says she logged in using her membership which had a meagre 168 miles. She says she found the products they had wanted but that her husband — who could afford them — didn't have access to.

Air Miles members have complained to CBC News that they had fewer access to rewards when they had many miles in their account. (CBC)

Heisler says Derek then called Air Miles and threatened to tell his story to the media unless he could exchange the rowing machine for a couple of the products he wanted. She says he got his way and the rewards he was looking for suddenly were available for him to claim.

Heisler says she's not an active Air Miles user but her husband is. So she doesn't buy the program's explanation that more active members get more rewards.

"It just sounds like B.S. to me," she says. "Their explanation doesn't add up at all."

Everybody does it?

Air Miles also told CBC News that tailoring rewards is typical industry practice.

Loyalty program expert Sojka disagrees. He says, typically, while rewards programs may offer extra perks to more active collectors, "this is the first time I'm aware of awards being blocked to members."

CBC News checked with other popular rewards programs. The ones run by Shoppers Drug Mart, Loblaws, Canadian Tire and Scene, the movie loyalty program, all said that all of their members have access to every reward.

Aeroplan said that its top earners get exclusive offers but that all members have access to the loyalty program's main catalogue which includes merchandise and travel rewards.

Sojka says he's stumped why Air Miles would prevent customers from accessing all items in its catalogue.

He wonders if it has anything to do with the fact that people are clamouring to redeem miles before they disappear on Jan. 1. That's when miles older than five years start expiring.

"Are they trying to keep people from redeeming their miles so that they do actually expire at the end of this year? You never know."

Program spokeswoman Haffad contends that Air Miles is simply rewarding collectors who are more engaged in the program.

But some more active members say they've found their experience with the program not very rewarding at all.


Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Based in Toronto, Sophia Harris covers consumer and business for CBC News web, radio and TV. She previously worked as a CBC videojournalist in the Maritimes where she won an Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact: