Is Elite Status Less Special?

Scott McCartney’s Wall Street Journal column argues today that airline offers making elite status easier to earn are swelling the ranks and diluting the benefits.

    Being an elite-level frequent flier won’t be quite as special next year.

    Eager to raise cash and satisfy their credit-card company partners — who have propped up struggling airlines financially — several carriers have made it easier to qualify for premium-level status as an enticement to spend more on credit cards. Some recent offers have also made it a banner year for “mileage runs,” trips made solely to push mileage totals over qualifying thresholds.

    As a result, the ranks of premium travelers who get perks like upgrades, exit-row seating and preboarding privileges are swelling — eroding the exclusivity long associated with elite status.

    By one count, the number of elites could grow by more than 300,000 travelers in 2006 — an 8% increase. This comes at a time when many frequent travelers are already nursing a raft of complaints: That first-class upgrades are harder to score. That crowds of premium customers elbow each other when boarding some flights. And that special elite-only lines for security screening sometimes move slower than regular queues.

There’s certainly an element of elite status inflation, driven by partnerships and offers.

My own strategy is just to be a top tier elite, which most airlines do protect to some extent. Except for USAirways/America West and Continental, major US carriers are reluctant to offer complimentary status matches to their top tier.

Even top tiers get crowded, especially at carriers offering qualification at just 75,000 miles. And until Alaska introduces a third elite tier, its MVP Gold status is hardly a guarantor of benefits on transcon flights. Still, United and American treat their top tier elites especially well. And if you’re a domestic-only flyer Northwest does a good job delivering upgrades (and offers a token bonus mile deposit each time they don’t upgrade you).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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