There are several gripes that frequent flyers have. Here are just a few based on recent trends in the US airline industry.
- Devaluations. It costs more miles to redeem an award than it used to as airlines have raised price.
- Award Availability. In part because planes are generally full saver awards are tougher to get than ever. However there’s also been a philosophy shift at American Airlines towards just not making saver award space available most of the time even when seats are unsold.
- Revenue-based requirements for elite status culling elite ranks for those paying for travel out of pocket.
- Mileage-earning based on cost of a ticket which isn’t just redistributing who earns miles but earn rates are set so fewer miles are awarded than before — even as award chart pricing has gone up.
- Upgrades harder to get than ever with smaller first class cabins in some cases but airlines monetizing seats like they never used to. Fifteen years ago only 10% of passengers were paying some cash to sit up front now at Delta around 70% are.
- Basic economy means elite benefits you’ve earned now require a cash co-pay to receive. You may spend $40,000 a year on an airline but if you don’t spend an extra $20 or $40 each way you don’t even deserve an advance seat assignment let alone extra legroom or the change of an upgrade. Multiply that by a family of five roundtrip and it’s serious cash.
- Changes without notice. The biggest culprit here is Delta which is the least transparent of the major US airlines.
While airlines say they make changes to ‘better reward their best customers’ that isn’t true, since it takes more miles than ever to redeem an award and those awards are just as unavailable for big spenders. And above average spend is required just to earn as many miles as before, which are now worth less.
And it’s hard to remember the last broadly positive thing any major US airline has done for frequent flyers.
Of course Alaska Airlines hasn’t devalued, they still award miles based on distance flown and don’t have minimum spend requirements for status, and their award chart pricing (outside of Emirates awards) remains reasonable. Their Virgin America merger likely means they won’t devalue any time soon.
There’s plenty of value in non-US frequent flyer programs as well, and plenty of competition in the credit card space from proprietary bank rewards programs whose points transfer to miles – they’ve left airline credit cards behind in the dust. So not all news is bad.
But what I’m interested in for the moment is this. It sure seems based on reader feedback and the bulk of conversations I have that most of the ire over frequent flyer changes is currently aimed at American AAdvantage. There are more people complaining about American, saying they’re going to leave American, than any other carrier best I can tell. And I’m trying to parse between a variety of competing explanations.
- American’s changes are the most recent. Their merger with US Airways delayed many of the changes that Delta and United already made (reducing the value of currency, introducing revenue requirements). So it’s recency.
- American’s program used to be clearly the best, so in regressing to the mean they’ve fallen the farthest.
- The frequent flyer program was the reason to fly American, take that away the cupboard is bare. No one has chosen to fly Delta because of the SkyMiles program in at least 15 years, so gutting of that program doesn’t change the reason people do business with Delta — their somewhat better airline operation or because they live in Atlanta or the Upper Midwest.
- Sample bias. People who comment on blogs, interact with bloggers, participate in frequent flyer forums are disproportionately in the know, made decisions based on value, and are most aware of the most recent changes to value. So it’s a combination of all of the above, amplified by whom I talked with.
Why do you think American AAdvantage members are the loudest about recent frequent flyer program changes? There’s not a ton of difference between the programs anymore. Delta is less trustworthy. American has worse award space. United doesn’t offer top tier elites international upgrades on any fare. So there are differences, but not nearly as much as there used to be.