After loyalty program changes, airlines brace for Million Miler march

vapor trailIf you don’t like some of the recent changes to your airline loyalty program, talk to Mike Croswell. He’s a United Airlines “Million Miler” who assumed that his three decades of devotion to the airline would be reciprocated after he stopped being a frequent flier.

He assumed wrong.

“The money I spent chasing Million Mile status is without a doubt the poorest investment of my career,” says Croswell, who lives in Aspen, Colo., and joined United’s frequent-flier program, MileagePlus, in 1983. “I have zero benefits that were promised to me.”

Million Milers are, as the name suggests, air travelers who have given their long-term loyalty to one airline. In exchange for flying a million miles, they’re typically offered lifetime “elite” status that includes access to upgrades, preferred treatment and other perks reserved for an airline’s top customers. But as airlines begin to aggressively restructure their frequent-flier programs, some veteran air travelers who have retired but were depending on the benefits they worked for while they were still frequent fliers have found that their airlines are no longer treating them like the valued customers they thought they were.

Croswell says that his benefits have evaporated since United’s merger with Continental. Gone are many of the upgrades and other perks, and his boarding pass doesn’t even note his “Million Miler” status anymore. “Imagine putting money in a savings account, and the day you go to redeem the promised return, they say, ‘Sorry, we changed the rules. Your money is worth nothing now,’ ” he says. “I feel betrayed.”

United Airlines did not respond directly to Croswell’s criticisms and would not provide a representative of its MileagePlus program for an interview. But Charles Hobart, a spokesman for the airline, said that United’s loyalty program is “very generous to customers who have been loyal to us in the past.”

He added, “Our program is very generous to customers who currently and consistently reward us with their business, and we think it makes sense to reward our most frequent fliers.”

In other words, if you continue showing your loyalty to United by flying on it, the airline will continue to reward you with benefits. Stop flying, and the rewards may not be as magnanimous.

One reason United isn’t talking is that it’s the subject of a lawsuit brought by another Million Miler. George Lagen, a Chicago-based frequent flier, sued United in May after the airline reduced his elite status. United has tried to get the case thrown out, claiming that it has the right to modify its frequent-flier program, but in late January, a federal judge refused to dismiss the case.

Lagen’s case is one of several lawsuits against United resulting from changes that occurred after it merged with Continental Airlines and began trimming the benefits of its combined frequent-flier program. But the Million Miler dustup is the most closely watched, not just among frequent travelers but also within the airline industry. Although incremental devaluations of frequent-flier programs aren’t unusual, this marks the first time that a major airline has made such dramatic downgrades for its most established customers. If United prevails in court, it will almost certainly embolden other airlines to take similar steps.

Actually, it may have already done that, at least in the minds of frequent travelers. A new survey by Deloitte suggests that airline loyalty programs are eroding and on the “decline.” Only 55 percent of air travelers consider loyalty programs of “high importance” when choosing an airline, the study found. Since this is the first study of its kind, there are no previous numbers to compare it with. But a conversation with others with “lifetime” elite status fills in some of the missing detail.

For airlines and their customers, it’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario. Take one of the programs with relatively generous rewards, even for its longtime customers. These have become so watered down that they are “useless,” to hear passengers such as Paul Lewis, a Denver-based consultant who lives in Santiago, Chile, talk about it.

Lewis is a lifetime “gold”-level elite on American Airlines, which he manages to get upgraded to platinum status because he still travels frequently. But he says that his gold status is almost meaningless, because American has swelled the ranks of its elites by making it too easy to reach that level. As a result, snagging an upgrade is nearly impossible, because there are too many other golds competing for a business-class seat.

Even so, platinum status is barely enough to keep him loyal. If he slipped back to gold for some reason, he says he’d be out the door, “lifetime status or not.”

For some, even lifetime platinum status doesn’t cut it. Don Domina, a retired sales vice president for a construction equipment manufacturer in St. Louis, was awarded lifetime platinum status on American Airlines, but he has still stopped giving his business to the airline, in part because he’s retired and in part because the benefits aren’t what he’d been led to believe they were when he became a frequent flier on American. “I did get a call from American wondering where I had gone,” he said, adding, “There is no love.”

The solution? Cut benefits so that the most deserving frequent fliers get the special treatment they deserve. United tried to do that when it merged its loyalty program with Continental’s, and Delta has announced similar changes starting next year, when it plans to tie its elite levels with the amount of money passengers spend. But that provokes a different kind of backlash.

Jonathan Yarmis, a technology analyst based in New York, is a United Million Miler and a lifetime gold-level flier. Though he gets upgraded from time to time because of his status, he says that scoring one of the better seats is “rare.” I asked him whether he still felt appreciated after the recent changes. Not really, he said. Unless you’re at the top of the elite-level ladder, “you’re just not worth that much.”

It doesn’t seem to matter if an airline keeps its elite levels easy to maintain for Million Milers or, for that matter, the mileage opportunists who manage to collect rewards without darkening the door of an aircraft; or if the airline starts to cut its programs in order to make its top-tier customers happy. Too many loyal travelers say that they feel burned.

Croswell, who as a United Airlines 1K member in 1996 was once asked to give up the first-class seat from London to Washington that he’d been upgraded to for a Million Miler, and gladly did it because he says he knew that one day “my time would come” to be recognized, is done playing the loyalty game.

“I’m still flying,” he says. “But not on United.”

Are airlines loyalty programs worth belonging to?

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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.

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  • technomage1

    I ceased joining clubs a while back. The government pays for most of my travel and I don’t have a say in the matter which airline I fly. Therefore I never accumulate enough miles for anything to matter.

    What amuses me as a bystander is the lengths people will go though to try and score free upgrades on short flights. I get anything over 4 hours, do you really want to go through all the hassle for an hour long hop?

    In any event, the way million milers are treated now it doesn’t look like I’m missing much.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    The only reason I sign up is so that I have a different phone number to call if there’s a problem. My last call to one of those numbers had me on hold for 25 minutes. Not sure how long the wait would have been if I *hadn’t* called the number, though. I’m sure the system recognizes that I’m just a person with a Frequent Flyer #, as opposed to an actual “Frequent Flyer”. Thoughts from the real FFs out there?

  • Stephen0118

    I don’t fly enough to be any status of any airline, so, even though I’m a member of several frequent flier clubs, I don’t give loyalty to any one airline. What I do like is hotel points. Right now I’m a member of the Hilton Honors and I have the Hilton AMEX. At least with that, it’s easy for me to get free hotel nights with no blackout dates.

  • Raven_Altosk

    My airline status just means that I’m a sucker. That’s it.

    It used to get me upgrades, but these days the only “benefit” is a “separate” phone number. That is, if it is indeed a US-based number. I often feel that UA has me calling India to talk to script-reading-drones like the “un-elites”

  • Raven_Altosk

    UA’s “special numbers” are a joke. At least when it was CO, I knew I was talking to someone in Houston.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    It’s sad that people think they’re entitiled to whatever they think they’re entitled to. All you have to do is read the information given out by an airline or hotel and you will understand how their program works. The program can be changed at any time, and not by the customer. I’ve been flying in first class on upgrades for about a hundred years. Every single time I assume that I’ll be bumped; it’s never happened but it could. I read the information that is sent to me when I join loyalty programs and the periodic updates as well. I’ve reaped great benefits with my loyalty, and I enjoy them all … but I know it could all end tomorrow.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Jeanne, the airlines definitely know “who you are” on the phone. If you don’t have status in the FF program, your call goes to the same place everyone else’s goes. I didn’t really understand this concept, having had special service from Continental for years, but last year I needed to make some arrangements on Delta where I have no status and it was a real eye-opener. Long wait times rewarded by someone who I couldn’t even begin to understand. Not sure where airlines think they’re going with their so-called customer service … pretty soon a passenger will just have to show up in person and ask the crew if they can get on the plane, there will be no people at the airport to help them.

  • Asiansm Dan

    Loyal program is no longer a primordial criteria for decision to choose of a carrier as 15 years ago. Other criteria become more important since the miles worth less and less, and the status get less and less privileges. The Business seat configuration will set the minimum standard for the choice (i.e. Full REAL flat bed), the luggage allowance, the fees waiver, etc…

  • Jeff Kolker

    Imagine that some people actually think promised made would equal promises kept. Perhaps what they feel entitled to is the promises kept. I know many contracts have these legalese stating the company (not us of course) can change the terms of service at any time, not just these plans, but seemingly everything. Still, if they are changed drastically against the consumer, I would feel slighted… upset… but to you I would feel “entitled”. Seems a bit unfair to be classified so when I was told things would be a certain way.

    But for me, I don’t join these things. Never have, never will. Just don’t fly enough. I look for price, travel time, layover points, fees, and pick the best one for me when booking flights. Sadly, a flight is something to “endure” until I get to my destination when my “fun” really begins, so I don’t look for, pay for, or expect extra perks. Just get me there alive and with my luggage.

  • RetiredNavyphotog

    You have “been flying in first class on upgrades for about a hundred years.”
    Many would view you as entitled.

  • ctporter

    The FF I belong to allows me to go through much shorter TSA security lines, a HUGE bonus for me. It allows me to board early which means I am assured of overhead space for my carryon bag. It allows me to have a chance at an upgrade which means I am not getting my knees smashed by the person in front of me that absolutely must recline until I can count the hairs on their head, or it allows me to book an exit row seating that does provide enough space. It allows me four upgrade certificates per year that I can use for myself or friends and families, as I just did on a trip to the Big Island last week. I fly this airline because it has the most direct flights to where I need to go at a lower price than other airlines do. When I need to go where it does not fly I can often use a code share to get where I need to be at a reasonable price with those same advantages. I have two free checked bags, as does my companion on any flight. By the time I count in the baggage fees the fare difference can become considerable. I do not use the credit cards that are associated with an airline, I have to use a company Amex card so all my FF points are BIS points. For my situation, taking advantage of the FF program makes total sense.

  • bodega3

    I am SO pleased that UA has moved the agency desk back to the US. It is fabulous to speak to someone who actually knows the answer to my question and that I am not repeaking my self over and over plus saying to them, ‘I am sorry, I don’t understand what you are saying.”. The airlines made a huge mistake when then moved their various customer service desk off shore!

  • bodega3

    Most carriers have a special number for their premier fliyers. Otherwise, you deal with general res witht he rest of the pack. But then, if you used a ‘real’ travel agency, they could be your first call handle the issue. I can pftem call the premier desk and get help even if you aren’t a premier flyer.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    You took her words out of comment. She specifically added an expectation to be bumped and an acknowledgement that it could all end tomorrow.

  • bodega3

    Then you don’t know how to use a frequest flyer program to your benefit. One of the most important benefits is that you get priority over someone who isn’t a member, especially in reaccommodation. I learned first hand how benefitical this was when my own son missed his flight back to college and got the last seat on the next flight due to his ff membership over many who were on the same list but not members.
    We are flying for internationally for free in biz and first class on our next flights, so it all can work if you take the time. Not much difference in other programs, especially with grocery stores and the likes. Play the game and you can do quite well. Don’t and often pay more, get last priority and have no leverage if something happens.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    ” I get anything over 4 hours, do you really want to go through all the hassle for an hour long hop?:
    It really depends on the individual person and his/her wants and needs. For any big/tall person the upgrade for even a ten minutes flight is worth it. Also, if you need to work, the extra space and greater likelihood of a power port can be the difference between working and being idle.

  • Londoner1936

    If you are old, and have lots of time on your hands, and if you can travel more or less at any time, then these programs can work. We go to Europe from CA once or twice a year; fully flexible about when to travel, and have used FF miles on two of the three airlines which fly to France from the west coast. They are usually available when you spend time looking, avoid travelling in peak periods, or on peak days, and can be changed without penalty provided space is available. We use affiliated credit cards to build up mileage and always pay the charges when due. Methinks we are in a special sub-class of users of FF mileage, and these advantages woiuld not be useful to most … which is why I voted Yes, along with nearly 40% of respondents. This is probably not what the FF programs intended, but they have provided us with a number of free, or almost free round trips from No Cal to Europe.

  • Jeff Kolker

    How much have you had to spend to get that? I fly maybe once or twice a year. I did say…I “just don’t fly enough”.

    Besides, I’ve never had a problem. I’ve always gotten to where I needed to go, been treated fair, and if a small issue did arise, it was worked out immediately. I’ll have to say, flying out of Tulsa sure seems to be a good deal. All the airline’s staff seem to be helpful and considerate. Wonder if that has anything to do with it…

    Anyway, I don’t play games, and it isn’t worth it for the few times I do fly. You end up paying for what you get, regardless. So those “free” tickets….free? Well..sure.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I’m going to sound like a broken record, but the travelers quoted in the story would be much happier if they had taken a few business/econ classes. When they start talking about loyalty its all over. Just because some obviously brilliant marketer called these program loyalty programs, they aren’t. Its about incentivizing you to direct your travel dollars to the travel provider. To believe these programs have anything to do with loyalty is to drink the marketing Kool-Aid.
    Lifetime status provides a tension between which travelers are more important to the airline. A longtime traveler who is now retired and no longer travelling but has given many years of “loyalty” or the current traveler who is spending big bucks today. Obviously the current traveler. Its his/her new dollars which are paying the bills, paying the salaries, paying for capital upgrades, etc.
    And more importantly, those current frequent travelers have the ability to jump ship and move to another travel provider and easily gain status through spending big bucks. The long time traveler who has retired is unlikely to be able to do so. Thus, the travel provider is much more concerned about retaining the new traveler who can leave.
    Whether that behavior is moral or ethical is another question, but when dealing with a so called “loyalty” program, it is important to understand the underlying motivating factors in order to maximize your benefits.

  • y_p_w

    It’s free to apply for these programs. I travel by air maybe one to three times a year, but I’m still a member of three different mileage programs. I generally don’t have enough points for a trip, but there are other redemption items.

  • John H.

    The solution is, of course, loyalty to a charge card that rewards you with miles on any airline with no blackouts. They are all over the place. My solution has been to completely ignore that idea and just find reasonable prices for tickets with any airline.

  • SoBeSparky

    This is a deeply flawed and one-sides article.

    Fact: Deloitte study is worthless to the industry unless it was weighted both to revenue generated and frequency flown. If you fly less than four or five times a year, and always fly deep-discounted fares at that, the airlines could care less what you think about the value of loyalty programs. That is not the function of the programs, as designed by the industry.

    Fact: If you are the bottom tier of elite, you should not expect much of anything, except miles and minor perks. A Gold Aadvantage member gets bonus miles each time the traveler flies. They get free upgrades after flying a certain number of miles, and the freebies are on a space-available basis. Many get upgrades, but you must pick off-peak, off-season flights. At American there are CK (Concierge Key), Executive Platinum and Platinum ahead of you. A Gold snagging an upgrade on a Monday morning flight from a business center? Impossible and they know it. Those are paying passengers up front.

    Fact: Anecdotal stories are illustrative of a point, not proof of a point. The fact so and so expected something different is meaningless, unless there were specific promises unkept. Why not interview the high-revenue flyers and see what they say? Many report (on Flyer Talk, Traveling Better, etc.) they cannot find the time to use all their benefits, but they appreciate them. They fight for them.

    Fact: All airlines make it clear that their programs may be changed or discontinued with a certain calendar notice. This is not the product itself, transportation by air, but a ancillary marketing program. In all business, marked-down price sales expire, coupons expire, and non-airline customer loyalty program are discontinued.

    In summary, the New York United flyer says it best, “you’re just not worth that much.” These programs are aimed at profitable flyers. If you are not that profitable, for one reason or another, you will not be flying first class to London anytime soon. No one ever promised an occasional leisure traveler anything but a program card and points for a free seat some day if they reserve that seat well in advance.

  • Scott McMurren

    Working the frequent flyer plans to your benefit is like following a moving target. It’s dynamic…just like the price of air fares. Ride the wave and you’ll be rewarded. Succumb to their marketing-speak…it will only lead to tears.

  • cjr001

    There’s really no reason to have loyalty to any business for this exact reason: the only thing these companies care about his how much money they can extract from you, only to shove you out of the way down the road when you finally expect your return.

  • MarkKelling

    First off, “chasing” a specific level in any rewards program is a mistake. If you are chasing it, that most likely means you are spending extra money you don’t need to or are doing things like mileage runs that are a waste of both time and money. Take the benefits you earn only if you earn them by doing things you would be doing anyway.

    Second, Does Mr. Croswell mean that the benefits he expected for flying a million miles have been removed, or does he mean he just does not get his 1st class upgrade because there are too many other higher level elite level flyers on the list ahead of him? With United, simply flying only 1 million miles only guarantees you a lifetime spot as a Gold Elite. You share the current benefits of every other Gold level flyer and receive those benefits like 1st class upgrades when available — which ain’t much these days when you see how many higher level elites there are in the program.

    Every thing considered, I do believe the rewards programs are beneficial to the truly frequent flyers who accrue their miles by actually paying the airline to fly them somewhere.

    If you happen to fly enough each year on your airline to maintain a level equivalent to Platinum on UA or higher, there are true benefits given to you. Maybe not every time on every flight, but they are there and many are benefits you hope you will never need. For example, last summer on my trip to LHR, the flight I was originally on was cancelled. Being a Platinum level flyer with UA, I was assisted by the UA Global Services person in EWR and was placed on the next flight in 1st and arrived only 10 hours late. This flight was on a smaller plane with only half the 1st seats the cancelled flight had, yet they were able to put me on it. Meanwhile, most of the travelers without status, including one lady who was needing to get to a funeral in London and had a last-minute mileage redemption flight (credit card miles not flight miles), were either moved to coach or completely bumped to a flight 3 or 4 days later (she did end up on the same flight with me, just in coach and only because of several no-shows). Other than getting me on that flight, UA’s only response to our “inconvenience” was a free drink coupon – given to those flying in 1st class where the drinks are free anyway. :-)

    I could also detail all of the “free” flights I have received over the years with UA/CO, Southwest, Frontier, and others, but why bother. Those who think the rewards programs are a scam would think I was just bragging.

  • Carchar

    You are allowed to name names, you know, even if your are giving them praise. :)

  • UAPhil

    There are two sides to the “million miler” story. I’m a UA million miler who flies less than he used to; I’m very happy with the Gold benefits. Yes, there have been some reductions, but there have also been some significant enhancements (such as being able to give my partner Gold status, reduced fees for award ticket changes and “close-in” bookings, free same day standby/confirmed changes, and increased award seat availability in coach). And I continue to have lounge access on international flights, and much shorter check-in lines. United is far from perfect, but overall I think they’ve struck a reasonable balance.

  • technomage1

    I’m not short. I do get that aspect of it. And people are free to o as they want. But to me, it seems like a lot of hassle on the shorter flights.

  • BillCCC

    I believe that it is worth it as long as you are not spending a ridiculous amount of money chasing the next status or maintaining the current status.

    What I do not like is an airline changing the terms of the FF program on a whim.

  • BillCCC

    One of the problems is that this is exactly the way customers treat businesses. If an airline offered comfortable economy seating, no charge checked baggage and meal but charged $50.00 more for a ticket they would not last a year.

  • Carchar

    My experience is that most short flights are on the classless commuter flights anyway….and those “short’ flights on these smaller planes are getting longer and longer…

  • MarkKelling

    But that is how the FF programs have always operated – on a whim.

    When one airline changes something, all the others rush to do the same thing. Whether that is adding a benefit (seldom seen these days), or removing one. They feel all have to offer basically the same thing or they will lose customers.

    Just like pricing. Why is every flight on the major airlines practically the same price on the same day and time? Because they are afraid.

  • MarkKelling

    No, not a sucker. Just stuck with an ever shrinking list of options so you have to pick one more than the others.

  • Helio

    In Brazil we have two major airlines, sharing almost 80% of the internal market (plus another 3 or 4 companies competing for rest). It makes easy to follow a FF program (I have in both larger ones). When I used to fly a lot at work, I always tried to use the company which gives me more perks and more options in int”l flights (for my vacations ;-) . Because the fares use to be similar, they didn’t care about my choices. Of course when my preferred one has an expensive fare comparing with the others, they put me in the cheaper one.

    But when I’m travel for personal purposes (which is not very often), and I cannot use miles, I usually choose based on price and convenience (in this order).

  • BMG4ME

    I can’t see why any lifetime Platinum member would have reason to complain. Being one myself I am in a good position to say that. I am very happy with the benefits I get considering I don’t fly anywhere near enough to get those benefits by flying these days. The only improvement would be to allow me to get to the next status by reducing the number of miles flown.

  • Mike

    Most say no — but I’ll bet most of the no sayers belong to one or more airline loyalty programs. If not worth belonging to, why do they belong?

  • DaveS

    I see the majority won’t be competing with me for the free trips I regularly take. I will never be a Million Miler on any of them, but who cares? Off to Jamaica. Elliott is knowledgeable about some things, but whenever he gets into frequent flyer programs he shows a one-sided perspective that ignores what is possible for ordinary people with a little bit of understanding of how the programs work.

  • DaveS

    There are huge differences between the programs on the redemption end. They don’t copycat each other the way you think.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Agreed. I’ve fallen to Gold on AA. Accordingly, I know that if I want an upgrade then I don’t fly Friday night, Sunday night, or Monday morning. If I fly those times, I know to buy the seat that I want.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I agree with much of your post. I would disagree however that chasing a specific level is necessarily a mistake. Like any other investment, it depends on your individual needs. I once made a mileage run SFO- Chicago to achieve Executive Platinum of American. It costs several hundred dolllars. The benefits were substantial. Free first class upgrades domestically plus 4 round trip upgrades which I used to fly my family to Europe, paying coach and traveling in business.
    The round trip upgrades were worth about 2k each. Upgrading 100 segments flown would have cost about $2,500.00. Total benefit was about $10,000 for a $500 investment.
    That’s a real life example of wisely leveraging the frequent flier program.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    If it seems like a lot of hassle then you are neither tall enough nor wide enough to be the person in my hypothetical. If you are tall enough that your knees hurt after a one hour flight, or you are wide enough that you have to pay for a second seat, then you would understand what I am talking about.

  • bodega3

    The points are not just from flying, but then you aren’t interested in the programs so not going to waste your time telling you how we do what we do. What I will stress is that these programs work and work well if you utilitze them.
    I have earned hundreds of dollars through a major department store utilizing their credit card. I just got a $110 in the mail yesterday that I can spend on anything and I have serveral $25 certificates in my wallet to go along with it. I have saved hundreds of dollars through certain grocery and drug stores utilizing their programs, too.
    Not everyone cares utilize these programs, but if you concentrate on certain ones, you will be amazed at how easy it is to benefit from them.

  • Jane

    Not a good question, Chris. Are programs worth belonging to? Sure, as long as they are free to join and don’t take a lot of effort. Join ’em all. Who knows, you might actually be able to get something from one of them someday. Just understand that they no longer reward loyalty, so don’t give them that.

  • technomage1

    I do understand. I just don’t agree. If you’re wide enough to have to pay for a second seat, then that money is already spent and you’d be better off in your original seats as the two of the, will give you more room than the first class seat. If you’re tall, like me, again – I’m talking about the length of a play here. I’m crammed into theater seats for longer than that. And, yes, it’s uncomfortable. But is it worth the hassle to try and score the upgrade. Not to me. But maybe I’m just used to going across oceans now as most of my travel is long haul transoceanic now.

    To me, the real crime is seat size is shrinking while Americans are getting bigger (both in height and girth).

  • MarkKelling

    True, but you were nearly there through your normal travel needs and your “run” was not a significant expense. Spending that to reach the lowest level of elite flyer does not provide the same return on investment and that is more where I was aiming my comments at. I myself have taken advantage of the CO and now UA option of buying extra elite qualifying miles to reach Platinum last year. It cost me $300 to insure I made Platinum.

  • TonyA_says

    Don’t understand why folks have too much faith in these FQTV programs. These lifetime elites are old enough to have survived PanAm, TWA, Eastern or even Braniff. So it should be clear to them that nothing lasts forever or too long. Unless you cash in early there might be nothing left later.

  • Bill___A

    It is worth it but maybe not as much “worth it” as it used to be. The benefits diminish. The airlines do not pay attention to the benefits they are supposed to give (Lufthansa, United). If you are going to fly a lot, it is still better than nothing. However, it has become both more difficult and expensive to travel on points.

  • ChBot

    The question, as is often the case with Chris opinion on “loyalty” programs, is flawed !!!
    Are they worth belonging to ? Of course yes, because from time to time, you get something you wouldn’t have had if you were not. I know that I’ve been able to get business class seats for all the family for cheaper than if i had paid for economy class seats on the same flights, making me very happy about the loyalty program !
    Are they worth making an effort to get more than that : probably not, depending on your situation !
    I live in Europe, where free “automatic” upgrades are unheard of (and where airline will only upgrade you if they have oversold economy and have empty seats in Business). Therefore, i often read with amusements the complaints of people that now say that their loyalty won’t score them anything anymore !

    I don’t often see complaints (other than awards availability issues) or strange behaviours (like mileage runs) coming from people living outside the US.
    And I think it comes from the fact that service in Europe is quite simple : short haul (and it rarely exceeds 3 hours) is basically “single class” and pretty much all the rest is considered long haul and flown in specially designed aircrafts with better seat pitch (even in economy).
    As an example, it is difficult to open (and read) a paper in a “short haul” European aircraft but quite comfortable to do so in a “long haul” one !
    The problem in the US is that domestic flying is in the same aircraft regardless of the flight duration, and they tend to be a lot more like the “short haul” european ones !!!
    In that configuration, not surprisingly, people are fighting for the perks (upgrades, fees waivers, …) especially where the norm used to be to get them for free (or at least not priced for) !!!

  • john4868

    I always love articles like this that take the stereotype of the entitled elite to the extreme. If you look up the 70+ page forum on FT dedicated to this it’s even worse. The airline can change the rules any time they want. You would think those that flew a million miles would realize that.

    I also laugh at people who are FF members who talk about the value of Butt-in-seat (BIS) miles over credit card miles and how the airlines have destroyed their FF programs with credit cards.

    Let’s look at the basic facts of the FF programs. They’re there to reward an airlines best customer. I would define that as the one’s making the most money for the airline. So let’s look at the value to the airline of a BIS mile vs a CC mile.

    CNBC did a show a few years ago behind the scenes at AA (the rest of this is from memory). It watched everything that went on to dispatch a flight from ORD to LAX which is about 1700 miles. The aircraft was a larger aircraft (about 300 people). I will never forget the conclusion of the story … AA made $150 on the flight or about $0.50 a person. Now could those economics have changed since then (especially if I’m having memory issues), yes but most of the economics for FF doesn’t change since the added fees don’t apply to them. You could also make the argument that different people made or lost the airline money based on fare class… but to keep it simple… The airline made about $0.50 on your 1700 BIS miles.

    Let compare that to a CC program. I looked but can’t find an article a few years ago that said that airline make between 1% to 1.5% on purchases on their affinity cards (ie they are paid $1 to $1.50 on every $100 in purchases). So, for the same 1700 miles above, the airline made $17 to $25.50.

    Who made the airline more money? Who is the better customer…

    And for the record, almost all of mile FF miles are CC miles and I’ve had someone from the airline basically confirm the math.

  • emanon256

    I have a former co-worker who showed me his Untied Million Miler packet. It boldly stated that he would be the second highest published level in the frequent flyer program for upgrade priority, that he would get 2 upgrade certificates per year, an that he would receive a 100% bonus on all miles earned. It stated that all of this was guaranteed for life. It had an asterisk that went to fine print, and the fine print said that this is guaranteed for the rest of his life, and will never change, because they value his business. No where did it say this could change at any time. Now, post merger, he gets 0 upgrade certificates, is the 3rd highest status for upgrade priority, and only gets a 50% mileage bonus. No wonder people are suing.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    I never looked at the various frequent flyer, frequent guest and frequent renter programs as ‘loyalty’ programs because they don’t have anything to do with “loyalty”.

    Are frequent flyerguestrenter programs worth belonging to? Yes. I was an elite FF with Delta but when I moved to Phoenix, I switched my business to America WestUS Airways. My wife and I were on a Delta flight and we were upgraded to First Class since the flight was oversold. I wasn’t an elite FF with Delta at that time and it was two years since I had elite status with Delta. It is my opinion that we were upgraded since I was an elite FF in the past.

    Even if you are an infrequent traveler, I think it makes sense to join these frequent flyerguestrenter programs. I joined the frequent guest program for Omni hotel since the symposium that I was attending was hosted there. Since I was a member (not elite status just a member) of the Omni frequent guest program, I received free Internet access during my stay.

    I think that it is very unrealistic to expect the benefits of a frequent flyerguestrenter program to remain the same forever.

  • DReinig

    I never had been directed to a United rep out of the use, and appreciate the priority security line, early boarding, and being able to switch to an upgraded seat for free at check in. (United Silver FF). And I fly almost every week. (missed gold by one round trip last year…ugh)

  • emanon256

    UA used to get me someone in Chicago, or Hawaii depending on the time of day. In Hawaii they always answered, “Aloha, you have reached the 1K desk in Hawaii.” I miss those days. Now I either get someone in another country, or some surely angry person who may not be in another country, but simply doesn’t care.

  • emanon256

    I am an elite frequent flyer on Frontier, and I still have to wait ~45 minutes every time I call them :(

  • bodega3

    Yes, I always loved talking to the Hawaii desk! I am surprised that the 1K desk isn’t back in the US as the agency desk is back. I feel your frustration!

  • emanon256

    Some calls to the 1K line do go to people who are in the US, or at least sound like they are. No accents. And they are proficient in English. But 99% of the time they don’t know what they are doing. They will put me on hold for over 30 minutes to book a flight when I am trying to book a legal connection that for whenever reason I get an error every time I try to book it online. Also when I ask for my wife to be moved into E+ next to me, which the web site will not allow me to do, but is a published benefit, they often tell me its not allowed and she has to pay since she is not a high lever frequent flyer, and when they can do it, I am on hold for a long time. They have also tried to charge me for a same day change which is another published benefit, and can only be done by an agent, and when I ask them why there is a charge, they tell me everyone gets charged, when I mention its listed as a 1K benefit, the either keep insisting its not, or they say they were not aware I was 1K. It’s so very strange. I wonder if it’s some locally outsourced call center, or simply the general member call center, which clearly is not trained proficiently. Way to run two good airlines into the ground Jeffy.

  • deLivron

    Should this have been titled the “Unfriendly Skies of Un…..”

  • Zvi

    I just got my United Premier Gold card for 2013 and see that they have deleted the “Million Miler” designation that were on past cards. Shame on you, United. It will be a cold day in hell before I fly again on United. Now I fly EVA AIR and they treat me with respect.