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Air India Flying Returns program changes are live: Here are your key takeaways

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We’ve previously covered how Air India is refreshing its identity. It started by making a massive aircraft order. Then it rolled out a new aircraft livery for its fleet and started installing refreshed seats on its wide-body aircraft. More recently, Air India continued its makeover with a new website and crew uniforms.

Now, Air India is modernizing its loyalty program. On April 3, the revamped Air India Flying Returns launched with new earning and redeeming structures, as well as changes to its elite status qualification requirements and a way to prevent points from expiring. Plus, no more paper upgrade certificates or calling in to book Star Alliance award flights.

TPG senior points and miles editor Gabrielle Bernardini and I sat down for a chat with several Air India employees, including head of loyalty, marketing and e-commerce, Sunil Suresh, to discuss the loyalty program’s first overhaul in over a decade. Here’s what we learned about the Air India Flying Returns program changes.

Air India Flying Returns announces major changes: Key takeaways

As you read this post, the new Air India Flying Returns program is live. So, although this post offers some additional information we obtained during our interview, you may also want to check the Air India website for specifics that weren’t available to us before the program launched.

Woman at airport

But for now, here are the key takeaways you should know about the Air India Flying Returns program changes:

  • Rewards points and tier points: You’ll earn two types of points in the new Flying Returns program. Rewards points are redeemable rewards, while tier points are a metric you can use to earn elite status.
  • Changes to earning elite status: Now you’ll need 15,000 tier points or 30 flights (with at least four on Air India) for Silver status, 30,000 tier points or 60 flights (with at least eight on Air India) for Gold status and 45,000 tier points or 90 flights (with at least 12 on Air India) for Platinum status.
  • Spend-based earnings on Air India flights: In the revamped Flying Returns program, you’ll earn 6 tier points per 100 Indian Rupees (about $1.20) regardless of your elite status. Plus you’ll earn rewards points based on your elite status as follows: Red members will earn 6 rewards points per 100 Rupees, Silver members will earn 8 rewards points per 100 Rupees, Gold members will earn 9 rewards points per 100 Rupees and Platinum members will earn 10 rewards points per 100 Rupees. You’ll still earn based on distance, fare class and elite status tier for partner flights you credit to Flying Returns.
  • Rewards for booking directly with Air India: When you book a paid flight on the Air India website or mobile app, you’ll earn 2 bonus reward points per 100 Rupees.
  • More non-flight ways to earn points: Air India is introducing more ways to earn points through non-airline partners. Examples Air India gave in its press release include car rentals, hotel stays, shopping and lifestyle experiences.
  • Three redemption tiers for Air India flights: Now, there are three redemption tiers for Air India flights: value fares that are semi-dynamic and based on when you book and load factors (an example might be a Mumbai to Delhi flight that costs 5,000 to 8,000 points if you book a month or two in advance), prime fares that are fixed but still highly discounted and cash plus points fares that are available up to two hours before departure if seats are still for sale. For cash plus points fares, you can use a slider to select how many points versus cash you want to pay.
  • Book Star Alliance awards online: Now you can book award flights operated by all Star Alliance partners online. Flying Returns also released new award charts for partner redemptions, but we weren’t able to get a preview of these charts. However, we did learn that flying Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) on United in economy class would cost 12,500 points. Flying Returns doesn’t levy additional fees on partner awards, instead only passing on the mandatory fees it must pay.
  • Fly on Air India to prevent points expiration: Your points won’t expire as long as you take at least one flight operated by Air India every 24 months.
  • Easier family points pooling: Air India already offered family points pooling. But, now the pooling process is simpler. Family points pools can include up to nine members who are relatives. The leader of the pool must fill out a form to create the pool, and then Air India reaches out to each member in the proposed pool to get their consent. The pool leader is the only member who can redeem points.

The Air India employees we spoke to in our interview noted their next step is to integrate Air India Express and Vistara into the Flying Returns program, such that all three airlines use one common loyalty program. They also hinted the airline may eventually offer one or more cobranded Air India credit cards for U.S. residents, noting they recognize the role cobranded cards play in loyalty rewards programs. The airline may also try to partner with one or more U.S. transferable currencies, which would join its collection of Indian banks that are already transfer partners.

Related: The best ways to fly to India with points and miles

Bottom line

Air India told us it wants to “make it a program that is right up there with the best in the world.” The newly revamped Flying Returns program certainly makes several major improvements, including allowing the booking of all Star Alliance award flights online.

The switch from mileage-based earnings to spend-based earnings on Air India flights will have winners and losers. In particular, those who fly on expensive fares and are happy to earn points on non-flight spending will come out well ahead. But those who fly longer less expensive fares will certainly earn less under the revamped program.

However, without a cobranded card in the U.S. or transferable points earned by U.S.-issued rewards cards that you can transfer to Air India, this program may remain of limited interest to most U.S. residents.