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

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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?

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