When Lifetime Status is Taken Away From You

When You’re “This Close” to Lifetime Status and the Program Ends

When British Airways bought Star Alliance airline british midland, I wasn’t far off from lifetime Gold in the bmi Diamond Club program.

bmi had a very special little program. Star Alliance Gold was easy to hit, and once you requalified your flight bonuses grew — you’d earn up to 625% of flown miles in premium cabins. They had cash and points awards and generous routing rules. Some people were even known to send in award tickets issued by other Star Alliance airlines for mileage credit. The only real downsides were fuel surcharges and terrible call center agents with even worse phone connections.

Of course I did get 21 months of British Airways Gold when Executive Club status matched bmi members.

When Lifetime Status Changes to Require Annual Re-qualification

Star Alliance member Aegean status matched british midland Gold members. The great thing about this? At the time once you earned Aegean Gold status you kept it you did not need to requalify each year. So I thought I had earned a ‘free’ Star Alliance Gold for life even though I ran out of time to get there in the bmi Diamond Club program.

Aegean though decided to make members continually requalify for their status and I was eventually downgraded to silver and then lost all status with the program.

Back in 2003 I was one of over 600 people who status matched to AirTran A+ Rewards and back then their program offered lifetime status as well. Once you earned status in AirTran’s program with 20 trips in 90 days or 100 trips in a year you kept it. Several years later I actually used it for some upgrades between Washington National and West Palm Beach. Then in 2008 they changed the rules and started requiring members to requalify each year.


Copyright: boarding1now / 123RF Stock Photo

That was especially sad when AirTran merged with Southwest, I would have loved lifetime A-List status once Southwest Airlines acquired them. I’ve lined up for too many Southwest boarding calls lately and would love to slide into the front of that boarding line. It wasn’t meant to be.

To be clear I did not deserve lifetime status in these cases but they’re examples I have a personal memory of where the program decided to change how status worked and move away from lifetime recognition.

Sometimes Lifetime Status Is Honored in Mergers Though

Normally when two travel providers merge, and both offered lifetime status, that status is honored.
But what about when one program had lifetime status and the other did not?

I learned last week that Le Club Accorhotels will honor lifetime Fairmont Presidents Club Platinum status.

The Fairmont San Francisco offered a Living Social deal of $2000 for a night in their Presidential Suite and lifetime Platinum status.

I blogged about it quickly sitting in the Thai Airways first class lounge in Bangkok. I was debating taking advantage of this myself, but a staff member came over to escort me to my spa appointment. Once I had showered post-massage I was taken to the plane straight away and I missed out.

At the time it was reported that 112 people took advantage of the deal. It was a mistake, though I never learned whether Living Social or the Fairmont San Francisco screwed up the ad copy. They took $2000, their lawyers told them they needed to find a way to honor the offer and they did. And whatever happens now to Fairmont Presidents Club as its eventually integrated into the Accor loyalty portfolio, Accor will make sure lifetime status is honored.

Fairmont of course may retain its own set of benefits that members have gotten used to, they might develop an earn and burn proposition as Accor offers today, and if customers in general are lucky Accor will learn something from Fairmont’s elite treatment that can be extended to brands like Sofitel.


Fairmont Royal York

What Will Happen to Lifetime Starwood Status?

I’m anxiously waiting to learn how my lifetime Starwood status will be handled once Starwood Preferred Guest and Marriott Rewards become a single program in the future, perhaps 2019.

I expect it will be honored by will lifetime Gold be mid-tier in the new program and will lifetime Platinum be top tier?

Marriott’s requirements for lifetime status are more stringent than Starwood’s (as makes sense for a chain with so many more hotels). If Marriott treats Starwood lifetime members generously, will they go back and recalculate the requirements for their own Marriott Rewards members too?


W Times Square

My Lifetime Status Quests

I’m working towards lifetime Hyatt status but since that’s spend-based I have a long way to go.

And I’m an American AAdvantage lifetime Platinum, unlike Delta and United there’s no option to earn more than lifetime second tier status with American (after all, US Airways was the stingiest with lifetime status as well, with lifetime Silver the only tier there and even then only introduced three years before the American Airlines merger).

There’s nowhere to go with American, and I’m reluctant to ever work too hard for lifetime elite status because lifetime doesn’t always mean what you think it means.

United Makes Absolutely No Promises to Lifetime Elite Members

Despite explicitly promising in late 2011 not to take away benefits or confirmed upgrades from million mile flyers as part of the Continental merger, United did exactly that in early 2012.

United said in October 2011 “[y]ou will continue to receive your benefits as you always have” and then take away the specific benefit of annual confirmed regional upgrades.

United even specifically said that the confirmed domestic upgrades would continue:

United told a judge lifetime only means until they change their minds.

Judge Hamilton: To understand the difference between lifetime and fingers crossed? That lifetime doesn’t mean lifetime?

United: That lifetime means lifetime unless…

Judge Wood: Unless we change our mind.

Judge Hamilton: Unless we change our mind.

United: Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s the case.

Judge Hamilton wrote an opinion summarizing United’s behavior towards million milers:

United’s defense here is that the airline’s very best customers—its Million Mile Flyers—should have known better than to believe United’s promise of “lifetime” benefits. This defense amounts to a confession of consumer fraud. United could not—honestly and legally—promise “lifetime” benefits while reserving the right to cancel its promise at any time and for any reason.

Lifetime Loyalty Only Works When Travel Providers Can Be Trusted

Lifetime status is great, but this is the reason that in talking with Lucky of One Mile at a Time on Thursday I was far less interested in investing to earn lifetime status than he seemed.

If you don’t trust your travel provider year-to-year, why would you trust them to honor a lifetime of loyalty when they’ve already gotten your money?

In an era of enhancements to give members what they want, and mergers that take the best of both programs to create a best in class experience (gosh, has that ever really happened?) trust is simply to eroded for the lifetime offer to lock me in to behavior and investment and loyalty today.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »

Comments

  1. When you acquire a business you acquire it’s assets. You also acquire it’s debts and obligations, one of them being lifetime status for those who have already qualified.

    Though bad PR, being one point or mile short is enough to deny lifetime in the acquirer. But I would hope any court would uphold lifetime status, just like it would uphold a vendor debt that the acquired entity has.

  2. The difference between debt and frequent flier-type program is that debt is a legal obligation, while miles/points/status is a reward.

    If an airline went bankrupt, its planes can be liquidated to pay back its debt holders; however, frequent fliers will not be paid out of their miles.

    So I can see that legally, the companies may not need to honor them, especially during an acquisition. However, business/PR-wise, terrible idea to piss off the most loyal customers.

  3. I am also curious about Marriott/SPG lifetime. I have enough nights with Marriott for lifetime Gold, but not enough points for even lifetime Silver (my work takes me to small towns where the hotels are cheap and I couldn’t pay with my Marriott card).

    Anyway if they combine the two I’d probably have enough for lifetime Platinum on nights alone, but certainly gold if they count my SPG spending which of course SPG doesn’t currently even look at…

  4. United skated both on its “lifetime” commitment to UA pre-merger Million Mile Flyers and its “lifetime” commitment to Lifetime Members of the Silver Wings Plus program it provided to seniors until 2006. Entreaties, public appeals, and class action lawsuits didn’t sway them.

    Those are two examples why some of us, even though we don’t really approve of his actions, can’t help but admire Dr. Dao.

    That’s what it took to make UA grovel. As a loser Million Mile Flyer and lifetime Silver Wings Plus member, I feel a little surge of Schadenfreude every time I think about that guy who boarded as a doctor and deboarded as a (soon-to-be-rich) patient.

  5. @Art – Like any good legal question, the answer to “When you acquire a business and you acquire its assets do you also acquire it’s debts and obligations?” is “it depends.”

    See, e.g., AA acquiring assets of TWA out of bankruptcy.

    It also doesn’t mean that the buyer can’t unilaterally amend the terms of the obligations. See, e.g., Gary’s example of UA and their Million Milers.

  6. I am or was a lifetime member of the Braniff Club and the TWA Club and the PanAm Club. What they meant was not my life time but their’s.

  7. Let’s see how much longer those people will Lifetime unlimited AAirpass can keep their pass

  8. Sorry but only a total chump would go beyond their normal travel patterns for lifetime status. I can understand going for status for the next year, but you need to have your head in the sand if you think you are ever going to have status for the rest of your life with some of these companies.

  9. It is amazing to me that we keep getting posts like this one. Anyone who has ever read the T&C of any loyalty program should be familiar with what it says: The program or any feature of the program, including benefits, can be discontinued any time, with or without prior notice. That’s why it is utterly naive for self-anointed travel gurus’ to keep pushing the notion that programs that offer “guaranteed” or “confirmed” perks are superior. The reality is that no perks are truly guaranteed if the purported “guarantee” can be violated or rescinded any time a program wants to or feels like it. Thus, the only reason for a program to “guarantee” a perk, when it does not have to, is simply to put a limit on it. HGP Diamonds were “guaranteed” 4 DSUs and that’s all they got because upgrades at check-in were then expressly verboten. WoH! Discoverists are “guaranteed” access to the club lounge 4 times/year and that is all they get. “Guaranteed” 4pm checkout means that you will be denied a request for a later, say 6pm, checkout..etc…etc…etc… In each instance, the effect of a “guarantee” is place a limit on a perk.

    Wanna “guarantee” my perks? Thanks but NO thanks!

  10. I see DCS is back posting alternative facts again…it had been such a civilized, factual place for a while.

  11. Sorry, @DCS, but that’s not the law with hotel chains (which have no federal preemption and are liable under state unfair trade practice laws). While the program can be discontinued at any time, it would violate unfair trade practice laws in most states for hotel chains to unilaterally amend their programs to simply jettison travelers who have spent money to obtain lifetime status and have previously received it.

  12. @Retired Lawyer — Good luck with that argument. The terms and conditions are the binding and legal “contract” between a program and its members. The first clause warns that participation constitutes agreement with the T&C. To turn around and challenge the T&C after the fact would be as viable jumping from an airplane without a ‘chute.

  13. Hello Gary,

    As a pre-merger United Million Mile Flyer and a lifetime Starwood Platinum, I feel your frustration with the broken promises made by various airline and hotel companies. It is mind-boggling we live in a time when companies are not held accountable for statements and promises made to customers. This is about years of loyaty and hundreds of thousands of dollars in business for promised lifetime benefits.

    Everything you have published with regards to United Airlines and the Million Mile Flyer program in this article are exactly the same grievances I had when I sued United Airlines (Lagen v United Continental Holdings Inc.). I fought on behalf of all the pre-merger United Airlines Million Mile Flyers who spent a great deal of time, effort and money to fly an actual million miles. Most importantly what does “lifetime” mean when a company promises you “lifetime” but really doesn’t mean it?

    One of the judges called United “fraudulent”, “deceptive” and “dishonest”. The judge then went on to say that United should be held “…accountable under some body of law.”

    The Transportation Committee is currently holding Oversight of US Airline Customer Service hearings. They have set up an e-mail specifically for United Airlines, Gary, I urge you and anyone who was a pre-merger United Airlines Million Mile Flyer to please send an e-mail telling your story. Even copying and pasting what Gary wrote on here is sufficient.

    transportfeedback@mail.house.gov

    The above e-mail will go directly to the Transportation Committee. The hearings are being held as this is being published – May 1st, 2nd and 3rd, 2017. If your readers come across this after these dates, please still send an e-mailto the Committee.

    https://transportation.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=401344

    Before I close this message, Gary, if Marriott decides to change lifetime promises made by Starwood, I will seek relief on behalf of all Lifetime Starwood Preferred Platinum Members. I hit a wall with United because of the Airline Deregulation Act, it will not be the case with a hotel chain.

    Best wishes,

    George Lagen

  14. DCS – the comment was about state laws. While you can’t use those against an airline (and are just left with breach of contract), there is nothing preventing you from pursuing that against a hotel chain.

  15. I do have to speak on behalf of AA here though. I’ve recently archived million miler status with them. This wouldn’t have happened without AA having rolled together my AA, TW, US, and HP miles. So I guess I should reall thank bankruptcy.

  16. @oleg — There is nothing preventing anyone from going after any entity, including windmills if one is Don Quixote… 😉

  17. Back in 2000 I worked at Worldspan. One coworker on the database team was an old and very crusty man (reminded me nearly exactly of Creed from the Office). He had retired Western Airlines and then had come to work for Worldspan. At the time he had it made. Worldspan had flight privileges on Delta, TWA, and Northwest, but they were only slightly above DL buddy passes in priority. But his Western retirement meant he had a guaranteed, free, 2 F seats on anything with open seats. I often think about him and wonder how many years that kept up as surely, today, it wouldn’t be the case.

  18. @Ben

    The surpass buyers have contract rights, not miles or status. So there status may be taken but not their actual contract rights ( and they could earn zero miles as well)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *