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Fun Read: New York Times – Have Elite Fliers Been Downgraded?

by on June 11, 2012 · 31 comments

in Elite Status, Travel Industry

The New York Times published an interesting article titled Have Elite Fliers Been Downgraded? this weekend that discusses whether airline elite status benefits and perks have been eroded to the point of being irrelevant. While I agreed with some of the points, I don’t fully think the current state of elite status is so doom and gloom and I would have liked to see at least one person disagreeing with all of the pessimists because elite status and first class can be amazing, if you know how to work the system. Regardless of my opinion, my favorite part of the article was the awesome infographic wittily highlighting how to get a Delta upgrade:

Delta Upgrade Chart Courtesy of The New York Times

Back to the article, it seems to have the sole perspective that elite benefits aren’t what they used to be, and draws upon a number of sources including Randy Petersen, who says (perhaps jokingly), “Never go to check-in at the elite line; it’s way too long,” who all seem to believe that’s true, noting several factors including:

-The swelling ranks of low-level elites diluting the benefits all elites enjoy such as dedicated phone lines, priority boarding and priority seat selection
-The anecdotally supported trend of increasing difficulty in securing upgrades
-The changing nature and requirements of elite status qualification
-Evidence that airlines are favoring customers (elite or not) who pay for perks once reserved solely for elites

However, as someone who flies several times a week and has elite status on two airlines (American Airlines Executive Platinum, and Delta Platinum – though I was Diamond for the past two years), I have to disagree with the overall sentiment. Using a Delta Silver Medallion on a super busy hub-hub business route like LaGuardia to Atlanta as an example of upgrades “by the wayside” is not really indicative of a new era of decreased upgrades. Silvers have always struggled on the LGA-ATL route, but if you take the very first or last flight of the day, you can often make it happen no problem. When you are low man on the totem pole, you always need to have a strategy- whether back in the day or in 2012. Considering American Express and Delta were giving away Silver Medallion to anyone who transferred 50,000 Amex points, I don’t think anyone should be outraged that Silver isn’t super exclusive or powerful.

I totally agree that Delta is the worst for international upgrades, so American wins here – especially if you are an Executive Platinum and can use your systemwide upgrades on any fare. As always, you should always do some research before joining a frequent flyer program to determine the pros and cons and which one works the best for you. For that reason, I’d tell anyone looking for free/cheap international upgrades to steer way clear of Delta, but you can always hope for the occasional oversell in coach which could result in an operational upgrade (OpUp) .

When it comes to airport lounges – another sore spot in the article, which claims they are more crowded and less convenient than ever – I’d agree that, yes, they can be quite crowded, but let’s not go straight to the doomsday scenario where you can’t even find a seat.  I’ve been in a lot of them lately, from SkyClubs at LaGuardia (which did have seating issues during the recent renovation, but are much better now) and even the  American Airlines ones in Dallas and Chicago and had no issue finding seats, so this is more hit/miss depending on the time of day and where you are flying from.

As long as you are a savvy traveler, you can still fly in style.

I think people like to think about the “good old days of flying” and are way too pessimistic about the current state of upgrades and first class. I generally disagree with people who state that domestic first class is horrible these days. Actually, most airlines – especially Delta – have been improving first class offerings, including more international business class style service on domestic routes, including enhanced food options. Considering how many perks have been cut out of the economy experience, flying first class is markedly better than coach, especially on longer domestic routes. I think it’s always important to remember too, that first class in many parts of the world, like Europe, is the same exact seat as economy with the middle seat blocked out. I’m always thankful for domestic first class in North America when I return from Europe.

As for securing the upgrade, they can be easy to come by. You just need to be flexible and savvy, as with anything having to do with points and miles. Elites are also still able to enjoy quite a few benefits that non-elites are not, including better help during flight cancellations (priceless), free checked bags, priority baggage handling and boarding (so you are sure to get overhead bin space), better seat selection (for the most part), and just generally friendly service on the ground (in the air is another matter).

Maybe I’m looking at this from the perspective of a high-level elite and so have different experiences from many of you, but I’m definitely glad to be elite and think the benefits have actually increased over the years. Am I totally out of line here?

Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author.s alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program.

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  • Jorge_segui

    Nope, I fully agree your statement. Yes, there are a bunch of hurdles now and whatever, but once you get used to the upgrades-kinda-feeling world, you cannot get it out from you… I Love the graphic too !

  • Pointsforthepeople

    “you just need to be flexible and savvy” to score big with your miles is correct, but with more emphasis on the former. Regular-job-with-kids-and-limited-vacation kind of people CAN have a harder time using miles. Flexibility is not an option for everyone.

  • THEsocalledfan

    I think what makes me most frustrated being a Delta elite has been (and my frame of reference has been from being forced into Delta due to NWA merger:
    1. The poor food in first class. I have not had a hot meal in Delta first class the whole time since the merger. I never due transcons, and they seem not to care about us who fly through MSP.
    2. Not even having a chance at first class due to the overuse of CRJ’s with single class service on short hops. Sounds like Delta is moving away from those, but it use to be a given for me to be bumped up on my short hops to and from home to MSP. I am surprised that this was not mentioned, but everything thinks frequent flyers live in big, metro areas on the coasts……

  • Rcworl

    What I found funny on my recent vacation to Italy is that the first/business/elite lines were way longer than the regular lines, in the US and Italy. This was for check-in and security!

  • Claire

    I’ve been diamond on delta for a number of years now but every time I read your mention of the int’l upgrades in AA I wonder if I should chuck it all in and start flying AA…as you say, the only time I get upgraded to business on delta on int’l is when they are oversold.

    Does united offer int’l upgrades as well if you’re elite?

    Would you recommend DL over AA?

  • Claire

    I’ve been diamond on delta for a number of years now but every time I read your mention of the int’l upgrades in AA I wonder if I should chuck it all in and start flying AA…as you say, the only time I get upgraded to business on delta on int’l is when they are oversold.

    Does united offer int’l upgrades as well if you’re elite?

    Would you recommend DL over AA?

  • Claire

    One more downside of DL — diamond is 125,000, vs. 100K on AA!

  • DeltaDiamondEqualsMeh

    I find the NY Times article to be more accurate than your review. First of all, of course you still find amazing value… even if you didn’t I doubt you would say that because your bread and butter comes from this site which is all about perks. Second, you state you fly several times per week? Doubtful, because if you did you could easily have Ex Plat and Diamond on AA and Delta at the same time. Third, as a Delta Diamond for the last two years, I have completely seen it devalued. I haven’t gotten a 5 day confirmed upgraded in quite a while, the lounges are packed and dirty, and the first class domestic product is a joke. Like someone else said, the food is horrible.

    Please be more objective in your writing. Articles like the NY Times provide significant value because they challenge airlines to improve their otherwise horrible processes. Why have we come to accept mediocrity?

  • sfobuddy

    As a Diamond I never feel devalued…not after 4 long haul BE upgrades this year alone.

  • Richard

    “As long as you are a savvy (single) traveler, you can still fly in style.” Every now and then I must remind myself that often one and one one award seat was available. Traveling single is my first choice so the one and only one seat is not an issue. But for the overwhelming majority of the population the goal is a trip with the other half and/or children so flying in style via award travel is difficult at best.

    For the family of four the award seats in coach to Florida is the bargain of the year. For the single travel the award seat in first to India is the bargain of the year.

  • Delta Diamond

    Everybody complaining about Delta I have a perfect solution- SWITCH. Been Diamond since they started offering it and its not the best product out there but they treat me very well. Every US carrier has skeletons in their closet. The grass is not greener unless you are talking about an international carrier, now that’s a different story.

  • Diamondtoo

    Exactly… When did we just agree to allow all us carriers to be a joke? Why not encourage articles like these that call out US airlines for their huge weaknesses….

  • Adam

    I think you are out of line, Brian, in the sense that all your fellow bloggers/travel hackers are out of line. Your travel lives are out of the ordinary, in that you structure your lives around mileage accumulation and upgrade potential. Most of us have jobs and families which require our attention and do not allow us to take the flight most likely to result in an upgrade, but instead the flight that maximizes our time.

    Since 1994 I’ve been a United Premier, Exec Premier, Northwest Gold Elite, and a DL Platinum based in MSP. My upgrade rate this year as a DL Plat is 40%, worse than even a UA Premier back in the good old days. DL’s first class meals on most domestic stages are inferior to NW’s of 2007 or UA’s of 1997. There’s rarely hot food and the meals are mostly starch. DL’s routing rules typically preclude even adding in a connection for the extra 1000 odd status miles. And you well know the challenges of using Skymiles at the low level.

    I still enjoy my status, but if I need to fly extra to maintain it, I am rethinking that and instead trying to decide if I should be focusing on a carrier and a program that will earn me the best travel rewards, because elite status isn’t delivering nearly as much as it used to.

  • arcticbull

    I assume by long haul BE you mean international and not the transcon product? If so, then you paid an awful lot for those upgrades. Y, B, and M are often the same price if not more than a discounted business class fare. Air Canada allows it’s lowest level members (25K/yr) to do the exact same thing — confirm an upgrade at time of booking a Y or B fare.

    The NYT article is all about challenging the airlines to become better!

  • arcticbull

    Yeah UA offers SWUs also. They’re far less restrictive than the DL instruments, but more so than AA instruments. They require a mid-level discounted economy fare (I think it’s a W).

  • arcticbull

    Yeah UA offers SWUs also. They’re far less restrictive than the DL instruments, but more so than AA instruments. They require a mid-level discounted economy fare (I think it’s a W).

  • Delta Lower-Level Elite

    As a lower-level elite status traveler on Delta, I must say I agree with much of the article. I had had mostly Delta Silver Medallion status (with one or two tastes of Gold) between 1995 and 2008. A little extra travel in 2008 combined with the new rollover system and Amex and Hilton MQM bonuses of recent years have given me Gold status since 2009 and it looks like I’ll be there till at least Feb 2014 (unless the rumors you reported recently about Delta moving to a revenue accrual system pan out). I came close to Platinum last year but chose to roll 22,000 miles into this year’s earning rather than take Platinum this year and settle for certain Silver next year because I feel status inflation has made today’s Gold the new Silver and today’s Silver has lost much of its value — especially upgrades for those who cannot be flexible. I fly almost exclusively BOS-ATL-MEX on discounted fares. Delta has downgraded most of the planes on those routes to former Northwest aircraft with smaller premium cabins and no entertainment. ATL-MEX planes used to be all 757′s with 24 business class seats. Now they are former NW Airbuses with 12-16 business class seats, more elite travelers competing for them, and, if you do manage to get upgraded, the planes don’t have entertainment systems, and the service has been downgraded considerably. That said, I still go to great effort to maintain my status because elite status is still worlds nicer than no status at all.

  • Delta Lower-Level Elite

    As a lower-level elite status traveler on Delta, I must say I agree with much of the article. I had had mostly Delta Silver Medallion status (with one or two tastes of Gold) between 1995 and 2008. A little extra travel in 2008 combined with the new rollover system and Amex and Hilton MQM bonuses of recent years have given me Gold status since 2009 and it looks like I’ll be there till at least Feb 2014 (unless the rumors you reported recently about Delta moving to a revenue accrual system pan out). I came close to Platinum last year but chose to roll 22,000 miles into this year’s earning rather than take Platinum this year and settle for certain Silver next year because I feel status inflation has made today’s Gold the new Silver and today’s Silver has lost much of its value — especially upgrades for those who cannot be flexible. I fly almost exclusively BOS-ATL-MEX on discounted fares. Delta has downgraded most of the planes on those routes to former Northwest aircraft with smaller premium cabins and no entertainment. ATL-MEX planes used to be all 757′s with 24 business class seats. Now they are former NW Airbuses with 12-16 business class seats, more elite travelers competing for them, and, if you do manage to get upgraded, the planes don’t have entertainment systems, and the service has been downgraded considerably. That said, I still go to great effort to maintain my status because elite status is still worlds nicer than no status at all.

  • Pingback: Degradation of Elite Status (?) | Field Of Burch

  • Zach

    wish it was that simple for those of us who’re ATL captives.

  • http://twitter.com/MusicandMarkets Anne Woodyard

    Yes, you probably are looking at things from a high-level elite standpoint… which is why it’s STILL worth it to attain that status in at least one program! It’s not just the upgrades that are valuable, but the other perks as you mention: ” better help during flight cancellations (priceless), free checked bags, priority baggage handling and boarding (so you are sure to get overhead bin space), better seat selection (for the most part), and just generally friendly service on the ground (in the air is another matter).” And I’d add to this list increased reward availability and often no fees for changes for both award and revenue flights.
    Didn’t have to do a mileage run last year to retain my 1K with United, but may have to this year – because it’s worth it!

  • thepointsguy

    Agree that elite levels have been inflated (Platinum is the new Gold), but as you mention, there are so many ways to bank MQMs, like rollover, that the answer is just to create a strategy to get to a higher level.

  • thepointsguy

    The grass isn’t much greener with AA, though if you fly 100,000 miles a year, the 8 upgrade certificates you get have huge value and can be used on the cheapest coach fares with no extra fees. Delta requires expensive fares for international upgrades.

    As arcticbull mentions, United does offer systemwides, but they have fare restrictions and you only get 6

  • thepointsguy

    I think you have valid points about MSP being downgraded. My experience out of NYC/Miami has been totally different- less RJs and better food options, even on relatively short flights like JFK-Miami. Agree that many NWA flyers got the shaft with the DL merger

  • thepointsguy

    Totally agree. Never said it was easy- it absolutely is hard, especially for families

  • StockShooterSoBe

    Off topic, from your photo, I think we were both in an Alton Road Walgreens at
    same time last week trying to get product cases unlocked? If true, small world…

  • StockShooterSoBe

    Correction: Lincoln Road Walgreens

  • austin1805

    When I was Premier Ex on UA, I felt like diagram in the New York Times explained my upgrade process perfectly. However, since becoming 1K on UA, I have had all upgrades clear and they have bent over backwards to accommodate my last minute changes. I haven’t flown on UA in economy as a 1K. For example, I recently flew IAD – SFO, had a later flight booked, showed up early at the airport and changed my flight (no fee). The flight was overbooked and low and behold they confirmed the upgrade by the time I was in line for security. I haven’t had a GPU that hasn’t cleared at least 3 days out. UA has also upgraded my companions when we were on the same reservation. UA has always gone way above and beyond for me and no other airline has ever matched their service for elites.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have great things to say about Delta’s upgrade process, fleet, or service.

  • http://ourtastytravels.com Erin De Santiago

    Wish switching was that easy as well! Esp for those of us who are Delta elite but expats abroad – we are moving from Asia to the Netherlands and we are stuck with KLM which has been a nightmare on Skyteam benefits, but given that I fly all long haul on KLM/Delta routes, I am stuck — as Diamond and Platinum elite abroad, we really get shafted on benefits. I’m in the middle of my 4th round the world trip since October and every single flight has required a call due to some issue.

  • DeltaDiamondEqualsMeh

    I just flew JFK-DEN Sunday and the food options were not good. The same cold sandwich or salad options that you could pick up from a random airport kiosk for 7 bucks.

    What are these better food options you speak of??

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2AU2J2HDHVCPZSGE2YMSTHGQC4 Andi

    Why should the legions of frequent flyers get international upgrades at all? It completely cheapens the product and is a huge disincentive for anyone to buy international business class in the first place.

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