Emirates Skywards’ Dr. Nejib Ben-Khedher talks about the programme and it’s India focus

We recently caught up with Dr Nejib Ben-Khedher, the head of Emirates’ Skywards loyalty programme. Dr Nejib has been at Emirates for over a decade and helming the loyalty programme for over nine years of his time at the airline. Under his stewardship, Skywards has transformed, launched industry-first concepts, expanded the ecosystem of partners worldwide and is now preparing for its next growth phase (with a new software platform coming in that will strengthen its offering).

a man in a suit and tie

Dr Nejib Ben-Khedher

The size of Skywards

Emirates Skywards, the passenger loyalty programme of Emirates, currently has about 35 million members.  It tripled in size from 2015 when Dr Nejib joined in. The velocity in new signups is incredible, given just about 18 months ago, Emirates Skywards reached the 30 million mark in terms of member numbers.

The programme is not so much focussed on signing new members but rather keeping them active, Dr Nejib tells LiveFromALounge. For them, members who’ve transacted at least once in 12 months are counted as active members. And that number hovers at 5 million people, a new high for the programme.  The programme counts the UAE, US, UK, India and Australia as its top five strategic markets.

For Emirates, it is essential to keep the infrequent travellers engaged as well, so they have spent effort on democratising the programme to ensure that the infrequent travellers, who perhaps pass through once in two years, let’s say, also get to use their miles earned on the programme.

Skywards Plus is the next big thing.

Emirates jumped on the subscription bandwagon in 2021, launching a subscription programme for members called Skywards+. This programme has three tiers (Classic, Advanced and Premium). The programme is doing well for the programme, with 12,000+ subscribers at the moment.

Dr Nejib says the highest tier (Premium, which costs USD 999 per annum or equivalent) has the most takers, given it provides a 20% bonus in terms of tier miles (uncapped) when one is flying Emirates and helps qualify for the next tier quicker. The other inclusions are a 20% bonus Skywards miles every time you fly, a 20% discount on Upgrade Rewards with no caps, and a 20% discount on Classic Rewards (once a year), besides lounge access, additional baggage allowance and other perks.

Many of the subscriptions are being taken in by the premium members (elites) themselves. On the other end, for instance, for Skywards Blue (the base tier members), the entry-level plan (Classic) allows the members to sign up and taste what the programme can offer, such as access to Emirates lounges.

Emirates is currently trying to test and learn from these packages to see what is interesting, says Dr. Nejib. And interestingly, most of the members are from the five strategic markets for the programme.

India is a big market for Emirates Skywards.

India is one of the strategic markets for Emirates, and it has some of the highest number of members for the programme coming from India, which should be no surprise. The Indian member base for the programme is over 2.4 million members, making it a top-five market for the programme.

Emirates launched SkywardsMilesMall.com a few years ago to enable Skywards members to earn miles for their shopping in their home countries and quickly added India to the list of countries where it is on offer.

Currently, there are over 130 brands that partner with the Skywards Mile Mall in India, and members can earn and spend Skywards Miles with these partners. Amongst these are Flipkart, Uniqlo, Myntra and Decathlon.

a screenshot of a website

Given the market size, Emirates still needs to start launching co-brand credit cards here. They say their partnership with ICICI Bank is a test case, and they would also look at other partnerships in the future.

People love their upgrades on Emirates.

Dr. Nejib talked about the split in which various people burn their miles. About 80% of the miles are burnt on flights, with the remaining on other options. Even amongst the burn options, upgrades are the most sought-after ones. The airline wants to offer options at all points where people can make transactions, and they offer the ability to redeem miles at the Dubai Duty-Free for as low as 4500 miles onwards.

Cash + Miles is also a big hit for Emirates, with the ability to burn as many miles as you’d like to purchase a ticket, even if an award ticket is unavailable. Emirates has extended it to booking ancillaries, such as preferred seats on board, extra luggage or even lounge access. No minimum requirements to use your Skywards Miles on Emirates ticket bookings with Cash+Miles are required.

1/8th of the tickets on Emirates have a miles component.

Dr Nejib was discussing the use of miles, and he indicated that between upgrades, cash+miles and classic rewards, one in eight Emirates tickets has a miles component associated with it.

Skywards is exploring Classic Rewards on FlyDubai.

Emirates Skywards got FlyDubai, the low-cost carrier based in Dubai, as an earn-and-burn partner in 2017. However, at the moment, there are no Classic (saver) rewards on FlyDubai. Dr Nejib mentioned that Classic Rewards (with a fixed redemption price per sector) are in the pipeline. The challenge is the technology. Emirates will transition to a new loyalty platform, enabling these new technology initiatives after they go live. He did not put a timeline to it.

Emirates does not want too many elite members.

Skywards is considerate around ensuring a member gets enough benefits and is valued in the programme, and so is not very interested in puffing up their elite ranks. They want to walk the rope between people who aspire to earn the benefits but also not have too many so that, for instance, their elite members start finding the lounges crowded. Apart from that, they want to use their premium elite members tiers to create an emotional connection with the brand as well. For instance, in India, the programme only has 44,000 elite members (Silver and above) out of 2.4 million members, which is less than 2% of the programme member base in India.

Cheaper Economy Redemptions will help Emirates have more interactions with members.

We met Nejib right about when the changes to Emirates’ redemptions were rolled out. For those who missed out, Emirates has cut the redemption rates on Economy Class tickets on their metal and some partners. Skywards has maintained the redemption rates on business and first class while reducing the rates for economy class redemptions. This will make Skywards more attractive to many people and help them put their miles to work as soon as they can accumulate them.

The purpose is to accelerate the flywheel of loyalty, where people don’t have to wait long before they can see redemption and then fly again.

Free Wi-Fi is helping the programme get signups.

We talked to Dr Nejib about the rollout of free Wi-Fi on board for members, and he mentioned it was pretty successful, with the airline seeing thousands and thousands of enrolments coming through the digital channels. In his words, free Wi-Fi has turned the dial on acquisition through the channel. So that ways, it works out exceptionally well for the airline.

(Interview edited for brevity and clarity)

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About Ajay

Ajay Awtaney is the Founder and Editor of Live From A Lounge (LFAL), a pioneering digital platform renowned for publishing news and views about aviation, hotels, passenger experience, loyalty programs, travel trends and frequent travel tips for the Global Indian. He is considered the Indian authority on business travel, luxury travel, frequent flyer miles, loyalty credit cards and travel for Indians around the globe. Ajay is a frequent contributor and commentator on the media as well, including ET Now, BBC, CNBC TV18, NDTV, Conde Nast Traveller and many other outlets.

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  1. Skywards is like the airline itself – more bling than substance. The hard limit on mileage expiry is a good enough reason not to bother engaging with it. If it were not for intense PR from Emirates, pound for pound, Qatar Airways is a better proposition for the regular Indian Economy class frequent traveller than Emirates when comparing FF programs.

    (At least with Avios, the points never expire and you have a short haul option with Sri Lankan to burn regularly).

  2. Hi Ajay,
    First of all, very nice article. More of such, if possible, please.

    You mention some 2.4 million Skywards members in India. I am just curious if you have any ballpark figure for how many of those are the invitation-only iO tier?

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