Airline loyalty programs’ dirty little secret? They’re not really that loyal to you

Songquan Deng /
Songquan Deng /

Laura Noell recently discovered a dirty little secret about her airline loyalty program: the “loyalty” only goes one way.

For years, she and her husband, both faithful United Airlines Mileage Plus members, flew United whenever they could. In return, the airline offered them a guaranteed upgrade to United’s “Economy Plus” section, she says, which gave them about the same amount of legroom as they had in coach class before airline deregulation.

The Noells, who live in Bethesda, Md., and often fly to California, believed it was a fair trade: They stuck to United, whether or not another carrier like Virgin America offered a less expensive flight. They put all their purchases on an affinity card that helped them collect miles and maintain their good standing with Mileage Plus.

The Noells thought they were the perfect customers.

But they were wrong.

From one day to the next, United changed the offer that allowed them to upgrade to Economy Plus. Poof! No more comfortable seats.

“There is now a significant fee for each seat on each flight,” says Laura Noell. “And there is no incentive to fly United exclusively.”

Old program was “too generous”

I recently spoke with a United executive, who explained these program tweaks. After merging with Continental Airlines, the now number-one airline in the United States took a hard look at Mileage Plus and decided to make some difficult downgrades. Simply put, the existing loyalty program was too generous.

These changes aren’t special to United. Not a week seems to go by that another travel company makes an unpopular revision to its loyalty program, requiring more points for a redemption or more miles flown for a special perk. The slighted customers then complain to me through my consumer advocacy site.

But the Economy Plus change is particularly cruel. Passengers who just want a somewhat comfortable seat, by 1970s standards, now have to give United their loyalty and pay a fee, according to Noell. Every passenger used to get those seats a generation ago, regardless of their fare. Back then airlines like United had minimum standards, when it came to seat comfort.

Making up the rules as they go along

You may not realize it, but these program changes are perfectly legal. Few people understand that if they’re participating in a loyalty program, they’ve agreed to let their airline do whatever it wants, when it comes to the rules.

It’s right there, in black and white, when you open your Mileage Plus terms and conditions. It’s the first item.

Membership and benefits, including the Premier Program, are offered at the discretion of United Airlines and its affiliates, it says.

“United has the right to terminate the Program and/or the Premier Program or to change the Program Rules, regulations, benefits, conditions of participation or mileage levels, in whole or in part, at any time, with or without notice, even though changes may affect the value of the mileage or certificates already accumulated,” it adds.

Almost no one bothers to read the fine print in their program. I’m willing to bet the Noells didn’t. If they did, maybe they’d have second thoughts about giving any airline their loyalty. (Again, United isn’t alone with its “we-can-change-the-rules-anytime” rule — all of the major carriers do it.)

Trimming an upgrade offer is a relatively minor issue, in the overall scheme of things. Airlines do far worse, from arbitrarily confiscating miles to ending programs and partnerships that their customers have come to rely on.

But you can’t blame Noell for feeling betrayed.

“I am extremely disappointed in United,” she says. “I have just canceled my [affinity] credit card. I will probably be flying United less often in the future.”

Meanwhile, United has benefitted from Noell’s business for years. It’s a fine way to say “thank you,” isn’t it?

Its hard to think of any other business that can dilute its product like this and still keep its customers. The only frequent fliers who seem to win at this share the airlines’ belief that rules are meant to be bent, if not broken. They game the system, engaging in ethically troublesome activities like “churning” their credit cards to maximize their loyalty program benefits.

The Noells are not the last passengers who will be disappointed by their airline loyalty program. But maybe this is a good time to take a look at your airline’s rules and ask yourself: Am I next?

Who benefits more from loyalty programs?

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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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  • Steve Rabin

    Yes, UA recently changed the game for Premier silver members (the lowest Premier level)–it used to be you could pick a seat in E+ upon booking–now it’s at check in (or, at booking for a fee, of course!). All other MP Premier levels still can get extra legroom at booking.
    It’s obvious the frequent flyer programs benefit the airlines–people continue to book with them thinking they’ll get a free flight–which most people don’t claim since there are literally billions of unused miles out there.

  • TonyA_says

    I wish they quit calling it loyalty because it ain’t. Maybe Ponzi [Scheme] program is better,

  • Alex

    She may feel slighted; but, she will probably be happier now. I fly enough to make earn that lowest frequent flyer level. For years, I was loyal to Northwest Airlines. When Delta arrived, I quickly discovered my loyalty was no longer valued. While it makes sense to be loyal if you’re flying every week (because of the first-class upgrades), there are very few benefits for those of us in that “silver” level.

    Without the constraints of a single airline, I now choose the best price, times, and routing for me. I can’t believe how long I wasted connecting through Atlanta after Delta stopped their non-stop LAX-FLL flight. (That’s a route I fly almost monthly.) Now, I have so many more options.

  • Traveling Millie

    Chris – As I write this, my husband and I are on the last leg of a 26-day, around-the-world trip on United and Star Alliance airlines (Thai – the very best!) and Singapore (excellent!)…..all business class. It cost us 260,000 miles each, and would have cost $12,000 if we’d bought the ticket (I asked the United arouind-the-world reservations person, and she checked our destinations to figure it out). I was faithful to Continental, and barely made silver elite (25,000 miles) for years….if there was a vast difference in price, for example with Southwest, I’d take Southwest or another airline, but if it was minimal or Continental included an extra stop instead of being nonstop, we’d go with Continental.

    We also cashed in 105,000 miles several years ago to fly business class to Australia and New Zealand. I have the credit card, but don’t use it too much.

    Before Continental started charging so much in both mileage and cash supplements, I used most of my miles to upgrade when flying internationally. I never used mileage for domestic or short flights, but I frequently was upgraded to first class domestically, even at silver level. One year I made the bottom elite level on both Continental and Delta (probably about 25,100 miles!), but when I booked a $199 round-trip from New Orleans to Ontario, CA on a Saturday night, with about 12 people on the plane, and Delta wouldn’t upgrade me because my ticket was too cheap, I never flew Delta again unless it was the only route. Continental didn’t care what you paid.

    So to me, the program has been fantastic! We played the game, yes, but not to our detriment When TWA was around, and the frequent flier programs first began, you could buy a coupon for $25 in store catalogs and use it for upgrades or discounts; triple mileage was rampant. We ended up with eight free first class tickets to Europe and eight upgrades (and this was before my travel job), so many the airline collapsed before we could use them all.

    But I do agree that everything has changed with the Continental/United merger; 2012 is the first year I didn’t even try to make elite level. Other posters are right; you can buy early boarding or upgrades…..But while it lasted, it was fantastic to me, and worth the effort. I’d say the same thing about hotel plans: we’ve had free weeks in Vienna, Kauai and other destinations by usually staying at Marriott, which is a fine chain.

    While I don’t agree with you on this issue, I’m a big fan and supporter of your work and admire all you do for us!

  • Christopher Elliott

    Millie, thanks for taking the time to share your perspective on this. You are one of my earliest and most important supporters, and I’ll always be grateful to you for helping launch my syndicated column.

  • Traveling Millie

    Chris – Unless you’re in Hawaii, you’re either up too late or up too early!! Take care…..hope we meet in person again sometime!
    If you are at all interested, I can send you copies of a few off-the-cuff comments I sent friends along the way……i miss having a regular outlet!


  • Christopher Elliott

    I’m in Orlando. My cats won’t let me sleep.

  • TonyA_says

    Well if you shop around for the best fare you will likely end up with different carriers and spread the earned miles all over the place (just like me). The problem is that most miles expire (other than the utterly useless SkyPesos). So, unless you travel a lot, it is hard to earn enough to claim a reward or some kind of elite status.

    I think that is why the OP stuck it out and gave her loyalty with United. By concetrating her travel with UA she was able to get some status. But her beef is about the ever changing rules or targets in a plan. That meant she had to earn a higher elite status just to get the upgrade she was accustomed to getting. That will be harder to achieve without flying UA more or others less.
    I think Scott McCartney of the Wall Sreet Journal explains it all in this video
    The bottom line is that there is a huge difference just trying to earn a free ticket with no status compared to getting those elusive perks because one has status. Status is one that most flyertalk folks are going for. You are going to get free trips anyway since you will have a lot of miles just to maintain status.

  • TonyA_says

    The dirty secret is that they just increased the price of “loyalty”.
    The bottom tier elites are not as elite anymore :-)
    So unless you can fly at least 50k EQM or 60 segments then you are no longer that elite.
    Boy, what a way to buy some loyalty.

  • TonyA_says

    If you get a lot more miles then you get STATUS. That is the key.

  • john4868

    Let me start with this for Full Disclosure… I am, or was after Feb 1, a UA 1K and a DL Silver elite. Both of which I obtained without purchasing a single flight (Airline CC are a wonderful thing).

    I didn’t vote in the poll because my answer could be neither or both depending on the situation. Having now dealt with two different FF programs in the past year, I’ve started to see FF programs more like the comp programs at local casinos. Those programs throw a bone to low level players but what they really want are the Whales… Those people that bet tens of thousands of dollars a year (or for FF programs fly tens of thousands of miles a year). To a certain extent it makes sense that the lower levels would become devalued, net revenue per passenger per mile is down for most of the airlines. They now make their money on the “extras” that along with FF programs is Chris’s other favorite airline topic. If the airline gives away all of those extras to their least often travelers, they have revenue problems. Like a casino, the airline has to get you to put more on the table so they have a chance to make their money. They quite simply can’t make enough anymore if you only fly 10 times a year on discounted tickets.

    Sadly, I had someone at UA slip and tell me that UA made more money off my CC purchases selling the elite miles than they probably would have if I had flown the miles on discounted tickets. That my friends is an upside down business model.

    On the flip side…. Someone that would choose to pay appreciably more for a ticket simply to earn FF miles is doing exactly what the airlines want you to.

    Ultimately here’s the new reality. You can get low level elite benefits now by either spending a medium amount of time on an airplane or by paying $50 a year, or more depending on additional benefits, for an airline credit card.

    I chose door #2

  • Raven_Altosk

    I still maintain that cattle being shipped to slaughter have more space requirements than humans in coach class these days. I generally don’t want the government up in my business, but I think some regulations are required. Next thing we know, they’ll make us sit cross-legged on the floor to squeeze a few more butts onboard.

  • john4868

    Just make sure that you call it “cris cross applesauce” instead of “Indian Style”…

  • TonyA_says

    So you can maintain UA 1K WITHOUT flying with just a UA credit card?
    I mean you don’t have to fly 4 segments minimum or something like that?
    Amazing. Maybe I can buy a Nobel Peace Prize :-)

  • john4868

    Unfortunately, not any more… back to platinum this year… But yep, when you spend a boat load of money on their credit card (corp purchasing card), you can maintain platinum without buying a seat. Edit: The whole UA 4 segments policy is waived for Chase card holders.

  • disqus_A6K3VBf8Zn

    What a con. And it an airline reduces flights to a given terminal or location, the passenger again is out of luck. In reducing at one, it may be increasing at another. The passenger finds traveling to different airports, often a distance away, much harder than a carrier switching terminals. This is a big con & disappointment. I also feel raped.

  • MarkKelling

    Status comes only from FLYING, not your credit card miles bonus or other miles given to you. You can rack up a million miles through the special offers and never fly once. This might get you a free flight eventually, but you are not a “frequent” flyer to the airline and they couldn’t care less about you.

  • disqus_A6K3VBf8Zn

    Melbourne seems to have lost a few flights while MCO gained. So,, I have to leave earlier and my cat is upset.

  • TonyA_says

    Agree although this is a tough issue. The OP essentially tried to keep her elite status just to get a decent coach seat (econ plus) and avoid the standard 31″ pitch seats. It looks like every cabin design out there for new airplanes have a 31″ pitch making any future legislation extremely expensive for the industry. I am afraid we will have to vote with our wallets (and buy economy premium or something like that).

  • Len

    I love cats. Particularly fried.

  • TonyA_says

    That’s what I thought, but did you read John Baker’s post above on how he got/maintained UA 1K? Amazing.
    PS. USAir allows you buy status outright. No flying needed.

  • Elizabeth Smith

    I found it hard to vote as well. I’ve been an elite frequent flyer for 16 years and so far, being elite has worked in my favor with regard to dedicated telephone customer support, free checked bags, seat selection, occasional domestic upgrades to first class, standby priority, and mileage award ticket redemption. However, I’ll never pay a much higher fare to remain loyal. Fare is still a factor for me. I also realize the rules can change at any time, so if I don’t like the changes, then I am not obligated to remain loyal to any one airline.

  • MarkKelling

    No, sitting takes up too much room. They will stand us all up and fasten us to sheets of plywood with our seat belts and then just stack us in like luggage. ;-)

  • MarkKelling

    This must be a corporate card only benefit that is a secret because it is not even noted in the benefits list on the credit card site. The consumer cards for United do not offer any such guaranteed Elite level and never have.

    You get lots of miles and some of the benefits of tier status (free checked bags, earlier boarding group, a airport club pass, and so on depending on the specific card), but you are not given tier status. Having the benefits and having the tier status are different things and should not be confused.

  • john4868

    @MarkKelling… Google “united presidential plus card.” They closed it to new applications after the merger but I’ve held it for two years. You earn Flex elite miles (1000 for every $5000 in purchases) and normal miles on purchases. Flex elite miles can then be transferred, up to 75k per year, toward status and are good for 36 months (I think).

    Would you like a scan of my 1K card to prove it?

  • mytimetotravel

    I have done very well from AA’s FF program, having flown round the world (with one large overland segment) three times in biz class which would have been far too expensive if I had to pay. I mostly fly JetBlue domestically but I have an AA affinity card. I stay with AA because they fly RDU-LHR but I’m only “loyal” because of the OneWorld program.

  • MeanMeosh

    I know how you feel. My wife and I finally gave in and rescued a cat from the shelter yesterday. He wouldn’t let us sleep, either :)

  • AndTheHorseYouRodeUpOn

    Did you actually FLY to get these miles or were they gained by purchasing consumer products ?

  • MeanMeosh

    AA also does on a limited basis. My platinum status was going to lapse a couple of years ago, and they sent me a letter offering to let me buy my way back in for $749 or something like that. Apparently once you’re in “the club”, they’ll let you stay, even if you don’t fly much.

  • AndTheHorseYouRodeUpOn

    Though there are valid complaints here, what did passengers expect? I know, the airlines started this business about using credit cards to purchase items to gain miles and now they’re going back to the original concept of PAY HIGH AIRFARES and ACTUALLY FLY THE AIRLINE to get the miles. Why should passengers sit in F-class because they bought a refrigerator in Sears? Airline currency is so prolific that it’s been watered down to 25-30,000 miles to be called “Premier”. Laughable. They should even dump that category and start with 100,00 miles a year minimum and leave the categories starting with Gold/Platinum levels and above. This would weed out the whiners, complainers and over-entitled gamers.

  • Cybrsk8r

    This is why I don’t belong to any of these programs. The only way you get anything is if you’re a business traveler and fly 20 times a year. It would take me 10 years to accumulate enough miles to get anything. Does anyone believe airline miles earned this year, will survive for 10 years without being yanked away on some technicality.

  • john4868

    @MarkKelling:disqus My DL status came from an AMEX card. Pay high annual fees and spend lots of money and DL will make you a Silver (but nothing higher). Edit: Mark here’s your google for that one “Delta Reserve for Business Credit Card”

  • MeanMeosh

    Well, DUH – of course loyalty programs are designed to benefit the airlines. They reward YOUR loyalty to the AIRLINE, not the other way around. Full disclosure, I belong to, and have benefited from, loyalty programs on several of the major airlines, but at the end of the day, they are designed to illicit dumb behavior like mileage runs, paying 2x more for a ticket on Airline A instead of Airline B despite a worse schedule, etc. You do that, and the airline wins, pure and simple, though it’s amusing listening to how some FFs justify throwing away money on a mileage run just to keep status (though if you fly a lot, especially with family, and usually check bags, the savings from not having to pay does start adding up).

    I do, however, have to get one thing off my chest, because it’s been bothering me for a while now, and that’s the almost class warfare rhetoric going on in your diatribes about how uncomfortable the coach class flying experience is. I get it that flying in the back of the bus isn’t fun (try doing it all the way to India and back if you want some yuks). But the bottom line is, you’re expecting Economy Plus seating, a free checked bag, free seat assignments together for you and your family at the front of the plane, free food, and whatever else is on your laundry list, but you’re only willing to pay Economy Minus pricing. I can all but guarantee that if the airlines do all that, and then raise one-way fares by $75, guys like you and Charlie Leocha will be all over the internet blasting the airlines for their “unconscionable profiteering” by raising prices. You might remember that AA tried to make the coach experience less miserable about 15 years ago (“More Room Throughout Coach”), but had to give up because people weren’t willing to pay the higher fares necessary to break even on a lesser number of seats. So no offense, but unless you’re willing to pay for the improved experience you desire, you really need to stop complaining.

  • TonyA_says

    LOL Ryanair almost tried this.

  • Don Nadeau

    At least for now, Delta uses a fairer system.

    For example, in the western Hemisphere, Delta top-tier SkyMiles members continue to receive Comfort Economy for free, while Silver Medallion members, who have earned less mileage, either pay 50% less or receive a free upgrade when they check in, if seats are still available.

    In this way, the bulk of SkyMiles participants, whom I assume are Silver Medallion, do not feel left out.

  • emanon256

    I defiantly agree that the airlines benefit more. But I have been flying United since they introduced economy plus, and they have never, ever, guaranteed economy plus to frequent flyers. It has always been on a space available bases.

    Back in the hay day, they would let all elites book E+ at the time of booking (or any time), and E+ was not available for sale at all to non-elites until check-in. They also blocked any seat next to an elite and would not let any one book that seat unless the flight was oversold or the person choosing it was another elite. Back then flights were not usually full and there were always empty middle seats.

    Back in 2009 or so, they started letting non-elites buy E+ at the time of purchase, or check-in, but not in between. It became slightly harder then to get E+, especially if booking within a few weeks of flying. That’s fine, it was never guaranteed. Then when the merger happened, but before the systems were integrated, suddenly any one could buy E+ at any time regardless of elite status, and a lot of people did so. So it became very hard to get an E+ seat as an elite in certain markets unless you book over a month out.

    After this I constantly saw people at the gate yelling, and arguing that they are guaranteed E+ and acting like the annoying entitled Elites that CE hates so much. Then when they announced the official system integration new combined program policy, they said that the lowest level elites, Silver (Formerly Premier) can no longer get E+ until they check in. Its still free, but they only get whats left at check-in. If its a non-elite heavy route, there are often still plenty of seats left then, if it is or there are a lot of people who decided to pay for it, there may not be any left. Also, with the Continental systems dynamic pricing algorithm (Find out more about this one for us Chris), it offers general members prices to upgrade to E+ based on what it thinks they would be willing to pay. So passenger X may get an offer for $29 while passenger Y gets an offer for $129 on the same route and same fare class, also, if they are in a middle seat, they may pay more than someone in a window seat. With this algorithm, they sell a lot more seats and there are even less free seats for elites and almost none for Slivers.

    That being said, that how it works. It’s a numbers game for United and they really could care less about the OP who flys 25,000 miles a year on discounted tickets. They could also care less about me who flys 125,000 miles a year on discounted tickets. I’ve flown in a back middle many times, even as a 1K, I don’t complain barbecue I know its not guaranteed. On the flights I fly for work, with these changes, its sometimes hard to get an Economy Plus seat even when booking in advance. My uncle who is a silver, said he has never once had trouble getting an economy plus seat at check in since the change. Thems the brakes. And never assume the loyalty goes both ways, or you will just get disappointed.

  • Guest

    I have been a silver medallion flyer with Delta for several years and get all the things Elizabeth Smith points out above. And Delta has gone out of its way twice to help me change/add flights, without fee or making me pay higher fares, when there was a serious illness in my family and then a death a few years later. It is easy to stay with Delta because it is the main airline here and goes everywhere I want to go. All this said, I know their “loyalty” to me as a medallion customer can end in the wink of an eye to serve the corporate good. My motto in this and other business dealings has always been: “Never fall in love with a corporation; it won’t love you back!”

  • John Keahey

    I have been a silver medallion flyer with Delta for several years and get all the things allowed by that status. And Delta has gone out of its way twice to help me change/add flights, without fee or making me pay higher fares, when there was a serious illness in my family and then a death a few years later. It is easy to stay with Delta because it is the main airline here and goes everywhere I want to go. All this said, I know their “loyalty” to me as a medallion customer can end in the wink of an eye to serve the corporate good. My motto in this and other business dealings has always been: “Never fall in love with a corporation; it won’t love you back!”

  • y_p_w

    I was thinking more like a stand-up roller coaster.

    On the other hand, a large commercial jet has a round fuselage, and the layout is well suited for the overheard bins on the sides and the aisle(s) in the middle. So maybe they’ll reconfigure to passengers in the middle and two narrow crawl spaces on the side to exit.

  • Miami510

    I can see the directors of all the airline milage programs smirking: Heads we win…tails they loose.

    It’s a topsy-turvey world when the best customers get the
    shabbiest treatment. To add insult to
    injury, airline programs have increased the mileage requirement for free
    flights, limited the choice of flights to those that leave at very early or
    late times, have blackout periods, limit the number of “mileage seats” on
    flights, and rarely offer no-stop flights when one or two stops fly the same
    route. Now I’ve heard that there are upcharges
    for special seats on some flights.

    Unless one’s account is very close to qualifying for a free
    flight, the choice of airlines should be based upon other considerations.

  • Roger Miller


    “Also, beginning January 1, 2012, to qualify for any Premier level,
    members must fly at least four paid flights operated by United or Copa
    during a calendar year.*
    *Members who hold a Chase-issued Presidential Plus Credit Card or
    United MileagePlus Club Card are exempt from the minimum flight
    criteria as long as their card account is in good standing at the time
    of qualification.”

  • SoBeSparky

    The market place speaks with their dollars, and they demand the lowest possible fares. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics, also cited by Christopher back on July 23, 2008, reports that 2012 (thru 2Q) air fares are 13.8% lower than 1995 when compared in 1995 dollars.

    Airplane purchase prices, landing fees, fuel, and labor costs have not gone down relative to 17 years ago. Something has to give.

    If these people want all of the 1995 benefits, then they would have to pay for it plus inflation. And they refuse to. So something, or many things, have to go. No more meals in coach, full planes, more fees and rules. among other things are the norm. Non-loyalty program members get middle seats unless they pay.

    Regulated capitalism is great. The winner is the most efficient meeting the needs of the market place.

    As for who benefits from the loyalty programs, both airlines and flyers do. Just because an airline makes money (enjoys a profit) from loyalty programs does not make them evil. If you know the rules and use them to your advantage, then the consumer wins too.

  • TonyA_says

    Do you think United should move to rewarding miles as a percentage of the fare paid (like Southwest)? I wonder what this would accomplish?

  • Don Nadeau

    For your benefit, you need to examine these programs more carefully. You need not fly in order to earn frequent flyer miles.

    As with Laura Noell mentioned the post, you can receive miles by using an airline-affliliated credit card such as American Express. You need to ask 1) whether or not you will you use the airline card enough in one year to justify its fee and 2) whether or not an alternative card giving you “cash back” would be more beneficial.

    As of now, most airlines preserve your miles for at least 18 months as long as you have some activity on your account. The danger of course is if an airline goes bankrupt without another airline honoring its obligations in some sort of bankruptcy sale. Nevertheless, any new owner would be foolish not to try to retain the loyalty of current customers.

  • Michelle B.

    This year I flew business class round trip from Chicago to Honolulu using “free” miles. In the past I’ve done the same to Paris, and also to Rome (twice). About once or twice a year I use miles to upgrade from coach to business on cross-country trips. So I say that I am benefitting. I know the airlines can change the rules at any time. Heck, my timeshare membership can and does the same (free valet parking once included now gone, along with other perks).
    But not joining and using the rewards program is like not joining your grocery card loyalty program. The business woudn’t offer it unless there is something in it for them, yet by not taking advantage of it you are subject to their business policy whims anyway (higher prices, less legroom, no free snacks, etc.).
    I will not go out of my way (read: take a connecting flight), if there is a non-stop on a different carrier, but all other things being equal, then sure, I’ll play their game as I do get benefits.

  • emanon256

    They sort of do that, bust still mostly based on miles flown. Full fare and near full fare get extra elite qualifying miles. Premium fares get an ever higher percentage of elite qualifying miles. So it’s really a bonus if you pay more, not a reduction if you pay less. The big change is I used to get 100% elite qualifying miles if I flew on a partner, now a lot of patterns only give 50% premier qualifying miles if it’s a discount ticket.

    I personally like that’s its based mostly on Butt In Seat miles (BIS: I had to ask what that meant). I feel like it gives more meaning to those of us who actually do fly a lot. I think if they went to a system where people earn miles based on what they paid it would come back to bite them. Also, if they did that, how could they justify charging close in booking fees and mileage re-deposit fees to the majority of mileage plus members?

    It’s interesting to compare different loyalty programs. I once compared Hilton v. Marriott because I hear people swear by both and shun the other. I didn’t trust Hilton because I think they grossly inflate their points. What I found was that Marriott was much better in value if you stay at cheap low end hotels. You get a great value there, but not so much on high end luxury hotel like the Ritz. On the other hand, Hilton is a waste if you stay at cheap hotels, but if you use your points on high end luxury hotels like the Waldorf Astoria, you get a great value. So I split my nights between both.

    Now for my confession. I am getting off the road, I have been home more than usual the last few weeks and will begin a new job near home. I won’t even make Silver this year it looks like. It’s worth it to be home every night and see my son, buts it’s going to be a hard change. I have to be honest, I am going to miss the miles, points, and status.

  • TonyA_says

    I believe you made a very important point – loyalty means USING THE SERVICE OR PRODUCT OFTEN and not just shopping with a credit card.
    Hey congrats you stay closer to home and kids.
    I don’t feel guilty keeping my butt in my seat at home because when I travel it is usually very far to Asia and it is a pain just to adjust to jetlag both ways.
    I think I am back to SE Asia next week :-) flying with no status on coach.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Like any investment, Sometimes the math works And sometimes it doesnt. I did a mileage run once. I was set to fly 95k plus miles one year. I decided to make a $250 mileage run to Chicago to put me over the 100k threshold. The result, free domestic upgrades for the next year and 4 additional round trip upgrades anywhere American metal flew, including internationally. I used these upgrades to go to Paris in business class on a coach ticket. Plus back then I flew about 80 segments annually. At $30 a segment that was an additional $2400 savings. I was very happy with my $250 mileage run.

  • emanon256

    On the Asian airlines, or so I have hard, coach is pretty darn nice. I’ve flown LH and FI in coach and nether seems so bad because of the video on demand. Though LH had free food and wine, FI didn’t. Since 3/3/12 I have been very accustomed to coach, and buying an iPad made it a much better experience. I just hate the 31 inch pitch. I guess I better get used to it now. No more free E+ next year.

  • TonyA_says

    I agree, butt in sit is the only way to go. We can separate the flyers from the shoppers.

  • Tony

    I generally agree with you re: the airlines, Chris, but when you compare airlines with other companies… implying that the airlines are less than and wondering how they get away with such behavior… here’s my question to you: What other industry gives away high-value product like FREE seats on flights (valued at several hundred dollars or thousands) for simply choosing to do business with it? I agree that the airlines are inherently awful and that there’ve been numerous developments speaking to that, but… you have to give the airlines some credit for the value they give customers via their frequent-flyer programs.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Okay, I see your point. I am aware of the status thing…but what you get does not seem worthy of what you’re paying for it by paying higher prices for your tickets.

    Unless, of course, you’re one of those elite business flyers whose employers pay for it all, and don’t care if they are paying higher fares!

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Agreed. Pay more if you want a better product. I used to routine pay between $29 and $39 for a coach ticket from SFO to LAX. At those level what do I expect.

    I disagree about the behavior FF programs incentivize. It should be a pure business decision weighing costs and benefits. See my post on my $250 mileage run and the benefits made.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Well in that case, that was a good deal! You’re right, sometimes the math works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s never worked for me.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The obvious answer s that’s the deal the airlines made. The longer answer is the airline sells miles to the affinity card company so the airlines profits when you use the card. Thus, they must give you the card holder something else you’ll use a better or different card.

  • TonyA_says

    Aisle or window in Asian airline is acceptable. Business is way too expensive. About half a small car payment in cash. The 15-16 hour JFK-HKG is getting too long for my aging bones. That means I might no longer qualify for CX Marco Polo since I have been trying to break the trip in NRT or ICN which is more than 3 hours shorter. Going to SE Asia usually means getting to Tokyo, Seoul or Hong Kong first, stretching your body, and then taking another 2-5 hour flight before arriving in a wild airport.

    I often laugh at those who complain that they did not get a free upgrade to econ plus. Try a whole day in coach over the Pacific.

  • DavidYoung2

    Using things like Amex MR helps eliminate this ‘spread out’ problem because you can concentrate the points in a single account, then transfer them to the airline of your choice (assuming they’re in the MR program.) So you can buy on price or service, but still earn the MR points in a single account. It’s not perfect, but it helps even the odds just a bit.

  • TonyA_says

    That AMEX partner list has thinned out. United is not there. So, to fly UA you need to transfer miles to AC or NH and then go from there. Delta is close to worthless. So the next best is BA, imo.

  • TonyA_says

    They justify all the mileage runs and crazy stuff so they can upgrade to First and Business on trips to far out places. So technically they seem to be saving money instead of paying five figure ticket prices. But then again there is a cheaper way to go to Asia, Europe or wherever as long as you do not need to travel in style.
    As for me, staying at home with family and cats is priceless. Therefore I am not an elite on any plan except petsmart.

  • TonyA_says

    Carver, 100k (butt in seat) is really hard to achieve unless you are a road warrior
    Manila is probably one of the best destinations to do a mileage run since it is far and fares can be inexpensive. But when I go there, I do not get 20k roundtrip, I get less. So unless there is a multiplier effect somewhere, that means I need to fly more than 5 times back and forth New York to Manila to get to 100k.

    I used to commute between Sacramento and NYC. I probably have to travel back and forth about twenty times to make 1k. So you are right, if you really have to fly to earn miles, it is an investment and you earned every bit of upgrade you can get. A $250 mileage run to make the 100k threshhold makes a lot of sense.

    Now I cannot say the same for someone who earned all the miles shopping from his or her couch. To me that is what devalued the airline loyalty programs.

  • mythsayer

    I actually got Silver status on Delta from a combo of my AmEx charges plus flying… I KNOW I didn’t fly enough to get to Silver status (which is admittedly pretty lame, but I was just happy to get anything since I’m not a business flyer… I do fly more than the average person I would say, but I’m still definitely a casual flyer).

  • mythsayer

    Yeah… that’s exactly what happened to me. I just pay for everything on my AmEx card and pay it off at the end of the month.

  • MarkKelling

    That card. OK thanks! True that it is no longer offered.

    But to maintain Platinum with 75000 qualifying miles without flying, you would have to spend $375,000,000 a year !!!

    I think it would be easier to fly the miles. ;-)

  • Christopher Elliott

    How did we go from loyalty programs to cats? (Of course, my cats would say the answer is easy. It’s always about them.)

  • TonyA_says

    I read this about airlines selling miles to banks.
    During the beggining of this great recession, UA and CO reportedly did this:
    United and Continental airlines already have cut deals this summer (2008) bringing them $600 million and $235 million in cash, respectively, for miles to be awarded in the future to users of their Chase bank-issued affinity credit cards.

    No wonder it is too difficult for REAL FLYERS to get rewards. Airlines are acting like banks.

  • Daddydo

    Frequent flyers ARE being conned by the airlines in many ways IF you are a 1-3 time a year flyer. If you fly weekly or monthly, there is a different standard. My son, who flies SEA NYC 4 times a month gets first class upgrades free on 85% of his flights and has Delta miles to burn. I look at Millie who used 520,000 miles. How much of that was from flying or how much from credit cards? And then, how many years did it take to get those miles? She could have paid $12,000.00. I get 2% on my credit card rebate, so if a majority of her miles was from credit card use, I would buy the tickets in 2 years and use the airlines that I wanted.

    Serious travelers with my son’s ability to get miles do get luxury, preferred treatment. He nd his wife have too taken exotic trips…..but you get ripped if you can’t get the 52 segments of flights per year.

  • DReinig

    Sorry, I do not agree with the write of this letter. United STILL recognizes their most frequent customers with free economy plus seats. I know because I get them on every flight. Premier Silver members can switch to an economy plus seat at checkin (24 hours ahead of boarding) and Gold members can book an economy plus seat at the time of booking. It’s not a recent change. It was this way in 2012 also.

  • MarkKelling

    If you are only flying 1 – 3 times a year, you are NOT a FREQUENT flyer. No matter what the airlines may tell you when they try and sell you a credit card :-)

  • emanon256

    That is also ridiculous. They can’t sustain this model. Will an airline bailout be next? I am leaning towards wanting regulation to return. I would gladly pay a little more for a decent meal and decent leg room in economy. Back in the day I remember NYC-DEN running me ~$500 no matter when I flew. Since the birth of Kayak and LCCs, it’s now $230 or so during off peak times and everything costs extra. Do the masses not really know what they want cheap as much as the next person, but when its so cheap the service suffers it’s no longer worth it.

  • emanon256

    I think its only $375,000 a year. But still, unless you are a purchase agent for a big company, its hard to do that. In my case, flying 125,000 miles in a seat, costs me roughly $25,000 a year. Its cheaper and I get to see more places.

  • ndonbrown

    When did free stuff – of any kind – given to sweeten a deal become a right?
    I was among the first to join the new new thing. All of them.
    The carrier, hotel whatever runs the risk of changing the rulesand losing us but it is their right to do it.
    Many of your readers (and maybe you) have no idea of what ‘regulated’ pricing was like. Maybe you’d get a cheap plastic flight bag or some other gimmicky give away IF the carrier wanted to express thanks. And you paid the same price no matter which airline you chose.
    Yes they squeeeze us in – tighter and tighter- and yes we have to pay for a snack and entertainment but for afres 50% more than today, which kept all but wealthy and expense account people off airplanes, we used to get bad food and no entertainment.
    Sadly UA has taken one of the world’s best carriers (CO) and made it into one of the worst but I still think the FF program is one of the better ones.

  • john4868

    @emanon256:disqus … $375,000 is correct… and it really doesn’t take a big company… little ones can spend that much too :-)

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The point wasn’t the 100k. That was merely a specific example from my own life where the math worked. I did a $70 mileage run to San Diego the previous year to get 1k miles to put me over the 50k threshhold. The perk of increased likelihood for upgrades was worth it for this big guy as it meant never having to buy a second seat.

    The math works sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t. Participation in a loyalty program is just like any investment. What makes sense for my circumstances may be a terrible idea for you.

    Consider a simple investment strategy. A 22 year old single person can be very risk tolerant and might make a large investment in volatile hi-tech stocks. A 70 year old married retiree should generally avoid high risk investments. Both can be sound investments, its just a matter of the investor’s, or in this case, the passenger’s, needs.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Yup, nasty changes went into effect overnight at the new UA and I’m sure will continue. Good stuff too for us old Continental flyers, like Premium Economy for short-haul flights that CO didn’t have. Thanks for bringing these details up, Chris, alot of people are unaware of the complex rules that go along with airline loyalty programs. Passengers need to be sure they are benefitting from being loyal to one airline. My UA status works for me, but for some people it might not be worth it.

  • Barfeld

    For the past 10 years or so, my wife and I have each logged about 75 K
    per year, almost all on our own dime (at the best fares we can find on
    “our” airline), get upgraded more often than not, get “comfort seating”
    and free drink coupons when not upgraded, and (without additional
    charge) bring our son home from across the country for a few days every
    Christmas and a couple of other times each year as well as fly other
    children/grandchildren for a total of 7-9 free round trips per year. We
    figure that we’re getting around 30-35 cents back in “free” airfare for
    each airfare dollar we spend.

    I sure HOPE that our loyalty benefits the airline because we’d sure be sad to see this end.

  • Joanne Esler Firby

    We used to be loyal United customers, as we lived in Chicago, and did manage to get a few free flights. However, we have abandoned them because their seats no longer provide enough leg room for my 6’2 husband, and we refuse to pay more for basic human comfort. We now select our airlines for comfort first, and enrolled in those loyalty programs. Our view now is, if we get enough miles to do something, it’s a nice perk, but we will no longer go out of our way to accumulate them.

  • emanon256

    I think they should have tubes that we slide into and we all fly lying flat, but stacked on top of one and other in the tubes. There can be a ladder to get in and out of the higher tubes. More people will fit and we all have lie flat seats. They can put the little seat back TVs on one end of the tube on a swivel arm and we can slide them around a little so we can lay in different positions. Anyway, that’s always been what I thought they should do to fit more people and make it more comfortable.

  • MarkKelling

    All airline loyalty programs change from time to time. They change
    partners, they change benefits, they change the number of miles you earn
    for your flights and how many miles you have to use to get a “free”
    flight. You just have to go along with the changes or you can change to
    another airline that works better for you.

    If you follow the
    rules in effect and play the game right, you can get benefit out of the
    loyalty programs. But you have to be flexible and understand things

    United made several changes when they merged with
    Continental. I was a Platinum level flyer with CO. One of the benefits
    of that was I could book a domestic seat in M class (at about half the
    price of a Y class ticket) and receive an instant upgrade to 1st. After
    the UA merger, you now have to be a 1K level member to get that price
    break. Was I disappointed? Of course. Did I quit flying UA? Not
    entirely. I was also disappointed several years ago when I finally saved
    enough miles with CO to book a 1st class seat to Australia on their
    partner Qantus. And CO announced they were no longer going to be a
    partner with them so were no longer accepting reservations. Oh well. I
    spent those miles on trips to Hawaii instead.

    Most airline
    loyalty programs have so many members in them, even at the lowest
    premium levels, that almost no one is getting the promised benefits
    anymore. Look for these programs to remove more and more benefits from
    the lower levels, or add restrictions making it harder to receive those
    benefits, over the next few years. After all, it the planes are full
    anyway, what need is there for the airline to give away anything “free”?

  • Extra ail

    Part of the problem is the explosion of the affinity perks and the fact that the sideline earners of points has made for more “loyal” flyers thereby pushing out the truly loyal flyer. When the airline only offers two rows of “comfort” seats, there are too many flyers they have to “give” those seats to (gotta love the irony that this admits the other seats are uncomfortable). My husband if a million+ miler and he “earned” most if his miles by fanny in the seat flying but we had to join the affinity crowd just to keep pace.

    Chris, do I correctly recall that the government or the accounting profession one wanted to make airlines include frequent flyer miles as a liability of the airlines but the airlines balked because they knew it would tip their balance sheets further awry?

  • Extramail

    Not all businesses will pay higher fares. My husbands company uses a travel agency that won’t let you deviate but a few dollars from the lowest possible fare. Makes it harder for the traveler because the times aren’t always convenient but is better for the company bottom line.

  • Traveling Millie

    Yes….points mostly from flying over the years, sometimes with bonuses or extra miles. We knew we wanted to do this around-the-world trip, so didn’t fritter away miles on other things. Also reaching elite, even at the lowest silver level, made a difference.

  • TonyA_says

    I believe that since the beginning of the 2008 recession (or depression, for a lot of people), airlines were also forced to decrease seat capacities because of weaker demand. Since the amount of earned miles kept on increasing, but they were competing for less and less available seats, then no wonder awards and upgrades became more difficult to get.

    I do not blame consumers either. Household incomes were probably stagnant at best. Lots of folks saw their home values deteriorate. Good jobs were hard to find. So people stretched their hard earned money on everything including airfares (excluding iphones).

    I think airlines will find a way to sell a cheaper product if that is what the market is asking for. It is not just the seat size that has become smaller. Almost every aspect of service is being reduced to come up with a fare that the average Joe Blow can afford. And because business class or even an economy plus price are beyond what some people can afford, free upgrades have become much more valuable for many. So maybe all this noise is just normal as business and the economy sours.

  • Big Horn Kid

    Does anyone know what the seat pitch is on long-haul military (troop transport) flights–ie: Camp LeJune – Bahrain? You would think these guys and gals should, at least, get business class seat pitch, but I think not. On the other hand, if you’re only 25, you’re probably better able to deal with leg cramps.

  • BobChi

    I won’t vote, because both benefit. I get great trips for next to nothing. I’m sorry if Chris hasn’t figured out how to use the programs well, but lots of people have.

  • $16635417

    The underlying, original purpose of a frequent flyer program was to get travelers to choose one airline over another. Has that changed? If not, i have to think that an airline benefits more.

  • Bill___A

    Loyalty programs aren’t for everyone and they don’t benefit everyone. If you are able to do a certain level of business with various entities, you can benefit from the experience. However, if your expectations are too high (i.e. you actually expect what’s promised) then you are in for a disappointment.
    For example, airlines are very quick to tell you that their lounges offer peace and quiet from the hustle and bustle of the airport terminal. This is seldom the case. I was recently in United’s “United Club” in Las Vegas, and this one woman employee of United was talking at length in a very loud voice to her colleague about her personal life. Therefore, not only were people getting no service, but fully half the lounge could hear her voice and their conversation very clearly. Although this was an extreme case, the airline lounges are hardly quiet oases of peace.
    Award travel is another thing that is evasive at best. You will suffer many inconveniences to go where you want to – and still pay quite a bit of money.
    Although Chris’ rants are generally an extreme case, one should not get high expectations from the loyalty programs. They are, in fact, ways for the hotels and airlines to get more business from you.
    As an aside, can you imagine if the hotels did code sharing?

  • BobChi

    I don’t really pay much attention to whether they care about me or not. I just enjoy the free trips they provide for me all over the world.

  • BobChi

    And you would be in the small minority. Most people are looking for the cheapest possible seat, and would rather pay the $230, than fork over an extra $270 for a meal and a little more legroom.

  • DaveS

    I happily flew to Mexico, Russia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Chile, Easter Island and Peru last year for free, with minimal taxes and fees. This year’s plans are for Jamaica, the Balkans and Cyprus, Korea and Mongolia, and the Mideast. There are definitely ways to get trips without being a business traveler flying a lot. I fly on business about once every two years.

  • $16635417

    $500 in 1979 (pre-deregulation) dollars would be about $1585.54 today.

  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Like a whole row of bunk beds? Interesting concept. But how would people eat? And logistics of people bouncing around in turbulence and climbing up and down ladders to get to their capsule… But all the futuristic space movies have it (Alien, Fifth Element) so perhaps that’s where we’re heading!

  • Laura616

    We have done well with United and my husband who is a very frequent flier gets bumped up on domestic flights most of the time. On International flights the changes to business first have been disappointing. They have made major cutbacks in all areas which was hardly unexpected. The headphones are so crappy I am going to buy my own for future travel. The food is nowhere near as good. And the cost, either in money or miles has zoomed up. Of course I do realize it is far more preferable to fly at the front but I look back with fondness at Continental before the changes.

  • Charley Clear Asia

    5 years of flying premium British Airways long haul gained me over 1.2 million miles however based in Asia – i quite simply am unable to use them…. every single time i look for flights to Europe on BA even 11 months out there aren’t any available seats left even on virtually empty flights. A total waste of my loyalty to the brand….and they’ve now lost me as a customer as a result
    Singapore Airlines however ( see BA i did switch eventually and haven’t flown you now for 2 years!) i have racked up the miles very quickly and touch wood so far have managed to use miles whenever i wanted to, even Christmas Week flights booking 1 week out. One return flight to the UK from Singapore even in economy gives you enough miles to fly to Bali for the weekend.
    I have finally realised that you should only stick with the airline if it’s convenient for you as the reality is it doesnt matter how many miles you manage to accrue it’s far more important to be able to use them otherwise they are as much use as monopoly money!

  • CJ

    Great article; thanks. United treated my right for many years and the loyalty program offered me enough benefits to keep me from flying with competitors. Since the merger all has changed. Clearly the airline thinks that I’ll remain loyal with the reduced benefits or I’m not worth having as a customer. I registered my comments with United several time and never even received as much as an automated response. Regardless, I now happily fly Virgin whenever I can. I don’t even need their loyalty program because flying with them is such a great experience!

  • djp98374

    Actually you could turn a plane into basically a mourge or herse and fit more people.
    You take 3 passangar rows currently holding 18 people you can insert a mourge type of struction and pack in about 30-40 people

  • bugbum

    I have been a United Premier for almost 25 years, however, due to an illness this past fall which kept me from flying for almost 3 months, I was just over 3,000 miles short of the 25,000 I needed to re-qualify for Premier status for 2013. I wrote a letter to the VP for the Mileage Plus program asking if they would reward my long years of loyalty (and paying more for United flights than I could have paid on other airlines) by waiving the 25,000 mile requirement and granting me Premier status for 2013. I received an e-mail from someone who said she had my letter to Mr. O’Toole. In the e-mail she didn’t even address my request. I responded to her, saying that she hadn’t addressed my request and re-stating it. She responded that she would be happy to get me the 3,000+ miles I needed for only 40,000 of my hard-earned miles. I was so offended that they would value almost 25 years of that much flying (not to mention the additional thousands of dollars I brought to them by influencing friends, colleagues and family to fly United) that I haven’t even responded to the message. Today I received an e-mail from United telling me that it’s not too late for me to qualify for Premier status for 2013 by buying 4,000 elite miles for only $649! So it appears that the loyalty only goes one way, and there is no reward for almost 25 years of flying more than 25,000 miles each year on United. From now on I think I’ll fly whoever is cheapest or has the best schedule for my needs. Since United doesn’t appear to value me, I no longer value them.

  • Elizabeth

    I agree with Millie. My husband and I have always flown Continental, and have gotten several free tickets overseas throughout the years. And even though we think the service has gotten worse after the merger, we still enjoy the perks of elite level. I just booked three “free” tickets to Europe this summer, and because my husband is Platinum Elite and I used his miles, all of us are seated in Economy Plus. And I must admit, it makes a huge difference sitting in a EP seat. So we will continue being loyal to United, especially since my husband is getting close to the million mile level, with its extra perks!

  • UnitedFREE

    I have flown close to million miles with United and had been at least Gold level for past 10 years. I came to the same conclusion as the author is describing, permanently dumped United (in the second quarter of this year) and started flying Virgin and Southwest. They really only reward themselves with this mileage plus system, definitely not the passenger. United figured out that they can be arrogant to its best customers, we’ll see how far this approach will take them… Farewell to United and your Jeff Shmuck CEO!! Wont be missing you!