No more mileage runs? That’s bad news for everyone

Jozef/Shutterstock
Jozef/Shutterstock
It may be too early to write the obituary for frequent-flier mileage runs — those legendary year-end flights that offer a shortcut to an airline’s coveted “elite” status — but it’s easy to see the end from here.

With Delta Air Lines and United Airlines tightening their loyalty program rules in 2014 to require more spending in order to get singled out for special treatment, many of these frivolous round trips could vanish after this winter.

“With the new revenue requirements in place, mileage running will rarely make economic sense, except in cases where a traveler is just a few miles and dollars short of an elite threshold,” says Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com.

I’ll miss the mileage runners when they disappear, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of them in the short term as they try ever more desperately to game the system.

Runners are the last true believers, chasing a dream that airlines can offer first-rate service at a reasonable price. Many also naively think they’re the airlines’ best friends, driven by a conviction that the “free” miles they’ve earned are the ultimate gauge of their loyalty, and that the allegiance will be repaid by a grateful airline.

But mostly, I’ll miss mileage runners for what they did: bring out the best even in airlines known for despising their customers.

Girish Ganesan, a partner for a Santa Fe, N.M., investment management firm, is skipping the mileage run this year. The numbers just didn’t add up, even though his preferred carrier offered to double his miles and grant him gold status if he takes a flight to nowhere.

Ganesan did a little research and learned that his carrier was cutting service to his closest international airport, Los Angeles.

“I checked some of the times I might want to use an award ticket, and there was one preferred date for which there was a wait list — the rest were not available,” he says. “The value of the miles is practically zero for me. I would rather go at the best time for me and not worry about this offer.”

In the future, something tells me the only passengers you’ll find in first class are the high rollers who pay top dollar for their walk-up fares, and the loyalty-program fans who spend a ridiculous amount of time learning all the ins and outs of a program to stay a step ahead of the masses.

But it isn’t only the herd of elites that’s being culled next year.

The number of passengers who think their loyalty will be returned with loyalty is dwindling, too, as a new reality sets in. Starting Jan. 1, you’ll have to either spend $12,500 annually with Delta and fly 125,000 miles or spend $25,000 on a co-branded credit card. United’s new requirements are similar, except that you can’t spend your way to a top-tier elite level on a card. Winship estimates that between 10% and 20% fewer travelers will qualify for elite status.

They’re passengers such as Dave Vanderhoof, who recently retired after earning elite status on United every year for the last decade. He fondly remembers the days of end-of-year runs that resulted in liberal upgrades for the next 12 months. For him, the run was a token of his fealty to the airline, which was reciprocated with VIP treatment. But after he retired and United revised its loyalty program, “service went into the toilet,” and Vanderhoof split with his preferred airline.

He no longer believes being loyal to an airline will automatically make it loyal to him. Now, he looks for a simpler proposition: a carrier that offers good service with no strings attached.

“I’ve switched to Virgin America,” he says. “Boy, what a difference in quality and service. And I really don’t care about earning rewards.”

As an unapologetic critic of loyalty programs, I’m pleased that Vanderhoof and others have seen the light, but I also fear a darker future.

With fewer mileage runners out there — with fewer elites, probably — airlines will try to groom an ever smaller group of “special” customers. The result? More exclusive and spectacular first-class sections featuring lie-flat seats, even on domestic routes (JetBlue, I’m lookin’ at you) and more fawning service for a select few. But in the back of the plane, look for less legroom, more maddening junk fees and flight attendants with a “you get what you pay for” attitude.

To some of us, mileage runners may have looked foolish and wasteful.

But we’ll miss them when they’ve departed. I already do.

Were mileage runners good for air travel?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Google Plus

  • Justin

    Counterpoint: You filled a seat that might have gone unsold and added to the airline’s profit margins.

    You’ll never know.

  • MarkKelling

    Except for the very top levels, I don’t think that UA and Delta requiring a spending level in conjunction with the mileage accumulation will impact the mileage runners or the Elite frequent flyer numbers.

    For example, I fly UA a lot and on the trip I make the most often collect 2,500 Elite qualification miles at an average cost of $250 in coach. So 10 of these round trips qualifies me for Silver Elite in both miles, 25000, and dollars, $2500. If I choose badly by making last minute reservations or flying in business 1st, the cost skyrockets. So a frequent flyer who makes even Gold with the $5000 requirement or Platinum at $7500 will still probably get there. The only issue is this spending must be solely with UA and NOT with their code share partners meaning you have to be even more careful when booking. The only ways I can see someone not making their level dollar requirement is if they fly international routs on code shares that used to count fully toward status level or they snare a fat finger flight at way below regular price.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    From an efficiency standpoint, mileage runners are not good for air
    travel because they unnecessarily consume transportation resources

    It sounds like you are making an economics based argument. If so, it has one major issue. Efficiency, from an economics perspective, means going to the person who values the good or service the most. If the frequent flier values the seat more than someone else, its an efficient use of resources.

    There are of course, other definitions of efficiency.

  • LFH0

    You’re right if one looks only at the economic perspective of an individual. Here, however, I’m looking at the economic perspective of society. That is, what benefit does society achieve from transporting individuals that have no need to be transported anywhere in particular, and are simply riding for the sake of earning points?

    Yesterday I read an interesting story in the San Jose Mercury News, “Homeless turn overnight bus route into Hotel 22.” See http://www.mercurynews.com/bay-area-news/ci_24429126/homeless-turn-overnight-bus-route-into-hotel-22. Homeless individuals ride the Valley Transportation Authority no. 22 route overnight, on its 2-hour journey between east San Jose and Palo Alto, taking up most of the seats. The news article points out that from an individual economic perspective, the $2 fare (or $70 monthly) is a bargain compared to staying in a hotel. And while these individuals do pay a fare, it is comparable to the airline mileage runners in that they have no real need to travel between San Jose and Palo Alto, and they take away seats from people who actually have a need for transportation between those two cities.

    It would be more economically efficient for society if carriers permitted the mileage runners to simply pay for their points, without them actually having to consume transportation unnecessarily. It would be more economically efficient for society if the VTA permitted the homeless to simply sleep in a parked and stationary bus, without them actually having to consume transportation unnecessarily.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I hear what you are saying. But consider

    Is a mileage runner any different than any other leisure flier who has no particular economic reason to be somewhere? If we accept your reasoning then any leisure flyer is economically inefficient, which of course is not true. It’s why airlines are priced primarily for business travelers, who are willing to pay more (i.e. they have a positive consumer benefit even at higher costs), and the remaining seats are priced for leisure travelers who would have a negative consumer benefit at the higher priced business class fares. A mileage runner is the same as a leisure traveler from that perspective.

    As I’m sure you remember, in economic theory, each individual acting to maximize his or her benefit, within a framework of a good flow of information, results in the maximum economic benefit to society. Of course, the major hole in that argument is that economics is only concerned with…economics. It makes no allowance for morality, ethics, or compassion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/SSRedG Red Guevarra

    I’m eilte (Medallion) with Delta, but I’m also elite with KLM and Alaska. While I may lose DL status in 2014, I’ve still got my other two. Ironically, I became elite at KL and AS from flying…you guessed it – Delta.

  • http://www.facebook.com/SSRedG Red Guevarra

    Southwest’s program is best for depositing points earned from hotel stays and car rentals. Otherwise, fly any one of the legacy carriers and start accumulating their miles. I recommend signing up for Alaska’s. Why? Because you earn not only on AS flights, but also from flying AA and DL, along with several international airlines from oneWorld and SkyTeam.

  • http://www.facebook.com/SSRedG Red Guevarra

    You can now bank your DL miles into Virgin Atlantic’s program, I believe.
    http://www.virgin-atlantic.com/en/us/frequentflyer/fcpartners/airlines/index.jsp

  • http://www.facebook.com/SSRedG Red Guevarra

    I agree with Justin. Those rev tickets were cheap for a reason i.e, off peak and by you buying a couple of tickets, you even helped the economy – the airline, the airports, their employees and of course the IRS.

    The transportation resources you claim you had wasted well, not very many people wanted them at that time. And mathematically speaking, the per-person amount it cost the airline to ferry you from point A to point Z is minuscule.

  • http://www.facebook.com/SSRedG Red Guevarra

    I still run! Heck, I run every month that I barely noticed I’ve reached Platinum at Aeromexico Club Premier about a month ago. So now I’m elite at 4 carriers.