Vistara was the easy winner of the downfall of Jet Airways. Unfortunately, the JetPrivilege programme became irrelevant, and Vistara ran a great status match programme back in the day. They had frequent fliers make a beeline to Vistara, the only other credible full-service airline in the mix. Remember, apart from the Government of India, no one mandated Air India for flying, and of course, Vistara was the next best thing after sliced bread on this planet for a long time.
Now, I don’t know if they’ve become rusted or if this is my own overtly critical experience, but the airline is blowing it on the loyalty front at the moment. And it does not make life easy for the airline’s frequent flyers, arguably their most prominent champions, but perhaps also those who find things out of routine the most easily.
Before I go more into details, let me start with the stance that I’m not one of those people who returned from the USA and wanted airlines around the globe to offer free upgrades to people, especially their elites. I believe this creates pricing indiscipline because customers no longer want to buy business class but are rather happy to try their luck at the upgrade roulette. At Air India, you have to be a VIP or a Government official to be offered that free upgrade. At Jet Airways, they used to upgrade by the sequence of check-in and the tier of the member if the economy cabin was oversold for free. So, if I was SEQ 1 and JP Platinum, and the economy cabin was full, I could expect to be bumped up at the gate (after all the cash, miles and voucher upgrades were done with).
How Vistara Upgrades work
At Vistara, this works differently. Vistara did not go down the op-up route to Business Class. You could expect to be upgraded to Premium Economy, but that is a rarity. They are good about not making overselling a part of their life. Hence this is not a big problem for them.
However, Vistara does give out upgrade vouchers to their customers, and these are supposed to be used on flights with Vistara. Silvers gets 1, Gold gets 2, Platinum gets three vouchers when they make the tier for the first time, and 1/3/5 upgrade vouchers when they retain their tiers. That means a customer of Vistara can enjoy upgrades when they like. They could choose to use them on a special flight, such as off to their birthday, honeymoon, holiday, whenever.
You need one upgrade voucher for an Economy to Premium Economy or a Premium Economy to Business Class upgrade, or an Economy to Business Class upgrade will mean two vouchers. These are the requirements for domestic flights. International flights have a vastly different upgrade requirement, which depends on flight length, amongst other things.
If you want an upgrade ahead, you can quickly call the contact centre, and they will upgrade you on the phone itself, subject to redemption seats being available in the cabin you want to be upgrading to.
Where are the lacunae?
However, what Vistara does not do, is to open up any available inventory to frequent flyers when not sold at the last minute. The Vistara belief is that paying customers are king, and they continue to sell unsold inventory via last-minute cash upgrades, which is usually at the airport. And honestly, I respect this approach. I have no problem with an airline trying to optimise revenue when they can, especially after all the losses caused by covid related grounding.
But what about loyalty for airport upgrades? This is where the problem sets in. I’ll go back to Jet Airways for a second.
If Jet Airways did not have an available upgrade seat, they would usually take down your voucher details and waitlist you on the flight. Their reservation system allowed them to do that, and at the airport, they had a ready list of who to upgrade after all the monetised upgrades were closed out as the flight was closed.
However, Vistara has no such capacity in the off-the-rack reservation systems they bought from Amadeus, and neither have they bothered to add this capability six years later. So, while they will politely take down your upgrade requests at the airport, they don’t care to clear them unless you push for it.
This is very different from an American loyalty outlook perspective, where the major airlines show you in the app and on the FDIS at your gate with the number of premium cabin seats open and where you stood on the upgrade list.
Delhi does not clear upgrades
In October 2021, I took a last-minute trip from Delhi to Mumbai booked at 9 PM on a Saturday for a noon departure next afternoon. Premium Economy was full, Economy was very full, and Business Class was selling at INR 50,000 per seat. I pulled the trigger on one of the last seats on this flight in Economy class, and the ticket would have cost over INR 12000+ for the economy class itself, which is a lot of money but par for the course for economy class tickets. These were the days when Vistara was serving those sorry sandwiches in Economy Class, and I was going to get on the plane from a meeting on Sunday, so I hoped to get some good food on the plane especially since I was going to hop off and get into another long meeting.
There were three business class seats available on the flight. I called Club Vistara, who could not make an upgrade happen because no redemption inventory in business class. I made them put a note on the reservation, which they said would flash when I’d turn up at the airport for dropping my bag.
Long story short, I arrived at the airport, and the agent mentioned nothing about the upgrade request. I reminded her. She knew nothing about voucher upgrades, so she called someone else (Vistara is handled by AISATS ground handling at Delhi). This second person took down my voucher numbers and told me I should either wait to get an upgrade cleared right now (upgrades clear T-90 minutes, or I could check with the boarding gate staff. She told me there were three seats on sale still, and there was a very good chance of clearing.
Roughing the Delhi airport serpentine queues, I made it to the other side, and at exactly T-89 minutes, I was at the boarding gate (not like I had better things to do once at the airport). I walked up to the boarding gate agent, and he shrugged, saying the business class was full. Eye rolls ensued. The guy opened his computer screen and thrust it in my face. The cabin was indeed full.
While no one wanted to give me clear answers, I was told things indirectly. At T-91, there were three seats open for sale again. So, I was looking for answers, just out of curiosity.
As I could see from my emergency exit window seat, the business cabin was full. The answer was seated across the row at the other end of the Emergency Exit row where a captain was either deadheading or on standby travel. He was in his uniform. Usually, they offer business class seats if open, but it seems his family flew upfront while he flew at the back. How do I know? The family was reunited when the plane landed and had a bus take them.
It is not the captain’s fault or his family’s. They were travelling with valid tickets, of course. Honestly, I’m not privy to the entitlements they have onboard a Vistara flight, but what got lost in the process, was my puny little upgrade. And then it all came together.
Vistara does not have a waitlisting system for upgrades. This means when the flights close, there needs to be a manual upgrade processing done to ensure people get upgraded if eligible. At Mumbai, Vistara gets you to sign a form to process upgrades to keep your upgrade processing paper trail. So, there was no paper trail of my upgrade request. This means if the scrap paper my voucher codes were jotted down on were tossed in the wastebasket after I left the counter, there would never be any trace left that I’d requested for an upgrade.
Life was better when the Vistara Lounge existed because the Lounge staff had access to the reservation system in real-time, and they were a good bunch of people. So, even if you did not get that upgrade cleared, they were on it until the flight was closed.
The same thing happened again at the Delhi – Dubai flight I took in November 2021. No one knew at the boarding gate that I’d requested an upgrade because there was no system to tell them at the boarding gate.
Honestly, this sounds like a rant, but I talked to many Vistara frequent fliers before writing this down, and they are all having similar experiences. The airport staff does not seem to care anymore at Delhi Airport, which is unfortunate. Also, since the airport staff is not Vistara but AISATS with some managers from Vistara overseeing them, no one gives a damn is the feeling I get, now that I am spending more time flying out of Delhi.
I seriously hope that these issues are taken care of as part of their new upgraded systems, of which a warning of downtime before going into upgrade should have been normal, but we never got any today.
Honestly, there are a whole lot of lapses on the loyalty front these days, which I find amusing and I hope the Vistara loyalty team is spending time fixing these instead of vanity projects such as the Club Vistara instagram handle.
P.S. It turns out it is not just me who finds it troubling to use our upgrade vouchers with Vistara
@airvistara Regret to inform that Vistara Airlines is not honouring it's upgrade vouchers stating some or other reason .My Gold tier I'd is 110114395 and I have tried many times to redeem it over call center and airport also.. Disgusting..Request to revoke all my upgrade vouchers
— Sumit Tandon (@SumitTa47155225) November 30, 2021
Vistara seems to be slackening on their upgrade processing, at least at the airport in Delhi. With Delhi being their hub, they really need to get their customer handling a few notches up at Delhi and be out there to impress. With Covid as an excuse fast vaning away, Vistara really got to put their best foot forward in the times ahead.
Loyalty is a two-way street, as I keep telling everyone who bothers to listen. And in the airline business, especially in India, where customers will leave you for a puny INR 100 difference on the ticket price, it matters even more that you earn that loyalty every day.
What has been your experience with Vistara Airport upgrades recently? Please do comment with specific good or bad experiences if any and do mention the station (airport) where you were flying out of as well.
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