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Originally published Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 7:00 PM

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Frequent fliers jostle for upgrades

Elite status in an airline-loyalty program used to be something of an exclusive club, rewarding those who flew the most — these days, though, the advantages are harder to gauge.

The New York Times

Frequent-flier quiz

The multibillion-dollar airline-loyalty industry has been around for more than 30 years. How much do you know about it? (Answers are at bottom)

1. What was an early inspiration for frequent-flier programs?

a.) S&H Green Stamps, distributed at grocery stores and other retailers

b.) Toasters and other gifts doled out to bank customers

c.) Both a. and b.

2. What was the first mainstream mileage-based frequent-flier program?

a.) American AAdvantage

b.) United Mileage Plus

c.) Delta Frequent Flier

3. How many frequent-flier programs are there today around the world?

a.) about 90

b.) about 140

c.) about 200

4. Between 1981 (when frequent-flier programs began in earnest) and the end of 2011, how many miles were awarded globally?

a.) 17.8 billion

b.) 930.5 billion

c.) 33.2 trillion

5. On average, what percentage of domestic tickets are purchased with points?

a.) 2 percent

b.) 6 percent

c.) 20 percent

6. What percentage of reward points and travel miles do Americans fail to redeem each year?

a.) 6.5 percent

b.) 10 percent

c.) 33.3 percent

7. What was the first airline to allow the transfer of frequent-flier points between same-sex couples?

a.) United Airlines (in 1999)

b.) Delta Air Lines (in 1993)

c.) American Airlines (in 1990)

8. What issues related to frequent-flier miles have been addressed by Congress?

a.) Whether they should be taxed

b.) Whether members of Congress should keep miles earned on business

c.) Both a. and b.

9. How many "mileage millionaires" are there?

a.) About 10,000

b.) 51,000

c.) More than 400,000

10. How many miles does the person with the most accumulated points have, and how were those miles accumulated?

a.) 70 million, through an airline program

b.) 20 million, through a credit card

c.) 120 million, through a credit card and a program.

ANSWERS: 1.c. 2.a. 3.c. 4.c. 5.b. 6.c. 7.b. 8.c. 9.c. 10.c.

— Suzanne MacNeille / NYT

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A steady rain was soaking the windows of La Guardia Airport in New York when Nancy Thode, an elite frequent flier with Delta Air Lines, approached a gate agent with a pressing question: Had her request for an upgrade cleared?

Glancing at her computer, brow furrowed, the agent was not encouraging: "You are No. 13."

With a nearby video monitor showing that more than half of the 26 first-class seats already were claimed, Thode knew her chances were slim.

"If somebody comes — diamond, platinum or gold," the gate agent pointed out, "they're going to get it."

Minutes later, Rick Triana, a business traveler, strode up, the word "diamond" emblazoned in capital letters on the tag attached to his Victorinox wheelie-bag. Despite seeing his name at the top of the upgrade list, he confirmed his spot with an agent anyway, lingering around afterward to make sure he wouldn't be bumped.

Triana got upgraded. Thode didn't. "I get knocked off for the diamonds," she sighed. "Silver just doesn't make it."

Elite status in an airline-loyalty program used to be something of an exclusive club, rewarding those who flew the most — typically between 25,000 and 125,000 miles a year, depending on the carrier — with perks and sought-after upgrades into business or first class.

These days, though, the advantages of being an elite flier are harder to gauge. The private lounges are more crowded, the priority check-in lines longer. And on some flights there are so many elites it's become almost a joke: "Never go to check-in at the elite line; it's way too long," said Randy Petersen, the founder of frequent-flier websites like FlyerTalk.com and MilePoint.com.

What's happened? A few things. As the airline industry has merged and shrunken over the years in order to survive, fewer seats on many routes means scarcer upgrades for top-tier fliers. Meanwhile, the number of travelers with some sort of elite status has grown.

Elite fliers are so concentrated on some flights, like San Francisco to New York or Chicago, Petersen said, "When they call early boarding, for 196 people on a plane, only 18 people will stay seated."

But it's not only that there are more elites these days; it's also that non-elites can now buy those once-reserved perks a la carte.

Don't want to wait in line at security? Pay for the express line. How about airline-lounge access? That'll be $50 for a day pass, or the right credit card will get you in for free. Even upgrades are for sale, if seats are available.

While all this may be good news for travelers who fly just once or twice a year, elite frequent fliers say the moves have been eating away at the cachet and precious privileges that come with elite status.

Airlines maintain that even though they've begun to offer frequent-flier perks for sale, elites are their priority. While credit-card holders and those who pay for priority boarding can be seated ahead of the masses, that group is called to board after top-tier fliers. As for purchased upgrades, they're generally offered only after they've been made available free to elite members.

"We carefully balance benefits for our credit-card programs so that we match them with popular items like first bag free and priority-boarding availability while not taking value away from our Medallion customers," said Paul Skrbec, a Delta spokesman.

Yet it is the airlines that, in evermore profitable deals with credit-card companies, have been diluting elite privileges in the first place.

While airlines are generally reluctant to discuss the number of people who have qualified for elite status, Petersen, who has been tracking loyalty programs since 1986, estimated that about 10 years ago, it used to be 2 or 3 percent of active program members.

"Today," he said, "it's more like 6 percent."

All of this affects the value of actually being elite.

"The silver guys, the lowest elite level, has become somewhat the throwaway level in the upgrade pool," Petersen said. "Far less than 50 percent of the lowest tiers are able to get the benefits out of the upgrade part of elite status."

Most frequent fliers, including Petersen, agree that, despite the erosion of many benefits over the years, elite status still comes with a few perks worth striving for — including faster security lines; free checked bags, allowing elite passengers to avoid the overhead-bin scrum; rebooking priority when a flight is oversold; and often better access to award seats.

So who is it that the airlines are rewarding these days? Those who pay up. Airlines are increasingly giving their best rewards not to just passengers who fly the most but also those who pay the highest fares. If an elite customer buys a full-fare coach seat, for example, that person typically will trump another elite in the same tier who has not when it comes to an upgrade.

Some airlines have built this thinking into their award programs. In 2010, Southwest moved from a system that awarded participants credit for flights to one that awards points based on the amount of money spent.

And airlines long have offered invitation-only programs such as United's Global Services and American's ConciergeKey, which lavish perks on those who spend the most on flights.

"Whether or not you are the best customer is not as important as it used to be," said Rick Seaney, the chief executive of Farecompare.com, a travel website. Frequent-flier programs are actually more egalitarian. You get the perks, regardless, "if you have enough money."

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