In addition, the U.S. market is saturated with only 40% of loyalty-program memberships considered active despite ever-increasing membership. That means people aren't using the loyalty rewards they're earning.

"Overall, it's a pretty gloomy picture, especially in airlines," said Bruce Speechley, who leads IBM Global Business Service's hospitality and leisure consulting practice.

Cruise lines and hotels by definition have a closer relationship with customers because people are staying with them for days, he said. But airlines have some work to do, especially in the extremely commoditized U.S. market.

"Loyalty programs aren't really differentiated anymore," Speechley said. "It's more about buying people's loyalty rather than deserving it." In light of slumping fuel prices, he contended airlines should start looking at investments to improve profitability and draw customers.

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