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Top 5 Ways Airline Elite Status Has Changed – And Is Going To Get Worse

by on December 17, 2013 · 28 comments

in Elite Status, Top 10

There are just two weeks left in 2013, which means that elite status is much on everyone’s mind – and I know more than a few people who are off on mad last-minute dashes to requalify. Historically I’ve defended the concept of mileage runs because they might make monetary sense if the perks you’d get by hitting the next elite level highly outweigh the cost (time and money) of doing the actual run. But as elite travelers (or those that desperately want to be) scramble and potentially shell out a ton of money, I think it is important to understand that elite status perks have been eroding over the years, especially for lower and mid tiers.

This isn’t a doomsday post, but one to help people who may be new to loyalty or trying to decide whether it makes sense, to think about the direction elite status is headed. Thanks to several factors including new revenue requirements, credit card benefits packages and other decisions by the airlines means that elite status no longer holds nearly the same value as it once did and that rather than being airline loyalty programs, frequent flyer programs have turned into frequent buyer programs and that more than ever, you will need to shell out a ton of money for these perks.

American Airlines AAdvantage Executive Platinum members even get free food and drinks in the main cabin.

Is elite status even worth it any more?

While there are still some benefits including enhanced customer service and priority when it comes not only to check-in, boarding and handling emergencies or travel plan changes why spend thousands of dollars each year on airline tickets to maybe have a chance at an upgrade when you can just purchase a business or first class seat, or use credit card bonuses to book those seats as awards?

Clearly top- and upper-tier elite status still has a lot of benefits, but as they become more diluted and more expensive to achieve and maintain, the question becomes more than ever: is it worth it? Do the math for yourself before you get caught on the elite status hamster wheel.

In the meantime, here are the top five negative changes to elite status as I see it, and feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments.

Delta's new Medallion Qualification Process

Delta’s new Medallion Qualification Requirements

1. The Shift Towards Revenue requirements = Slow Death of the Mileage Run. While earning points and status in some airline programs like Southwest Rapid Rewards and Virgin America Elevate have always based on how much money you spent, both Delta and United have added a revenue requirement to earning elite status that comes into effect in 2014. Now, just to achieve basic bottom-tier status – Silver Medallion on Delta and Premier Silver on United – you have to spend $2,500 within a calendar year on airline tickets. To get top-tier Diamond status on Delta, you need to spend a whopping $12,500, while Premier 1K on United will cost you $10,000 in airfares. Either that, or you need to spend $25,000 in a calendar year on a co-branded credit card for both airlines.

New United Premier Qualification Chart.

New United Premier Qualification Chart.

2. More perks are being given as part of credit card benefits. One of the reasons elite status benefits are being diluted is because many airline co-branded credit cards offer benefits that mirror those given to elite flyers. The Gold Delta Amex, for instance, gives you boarding and free checked bags, as does the United Explorer card, the Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage Visa Signature and Mastercard, and more. So more and more people are crowding those gates and boarding early and using checked baggage services, all of which diverts resources away from servicing and saving time for elite flyers – and it also changes the value equation since why bother flying even 25,000 miles when you can get very similar benefits and a significant mileage bonus just by having a co-branded credit card?

3. Upgrades are rarer and being up-sold. Probably one of the sorest points for elite flyers is the fact that the three big legacy carriers – American, Delta and United – have all taken recent moves that affect their elite upgrades. American has introduced a trial PlusGrade upgrade program where flyers can bid on upgrades to business or first class (whichever is the next-higher class of service). The airline has begin testing it on specific routes so far (you have to check whether it’s available for your flight), then starting 6 days before a flight, non-elites can make an upgrade offer and the airline will notify them prior to check in (so more than 24 hours in advance) if their offer is accepted. The airline says that these upgrades are processed after elite ones, but there’s no way to tell. For their part, Delta and United have been aggressively selling upgrades to business and first, which has been a major bone of contention for elites who expect complimentary upgrades and have seen their own upgrade chances diminish while the airlines sell seats they think should be theirs to any flyer willing to pay more for it. Not only that, but Delta has also just revamped its elite upgrade benefit so complimentary upgrades for the transcontinental BusinessElite routes (currently assigned at the gate based on availability) will no longer be a benefit. Instead, Diamond Medallions can select to upgrade those routes (and other international routes) using Global upgrades or miles. That changes the value calculation for Diamond status since Delta is making even these uber-top-tier flyers pay a premium for upgrades on busy routes.

New Delta Upgrade Chart

The new Delta upgrade chart means even top-tier elites will have to pay a premium.

4. Less about flying and more about buying. As I wrote about yesterday, it’s now easier to earn elite-qualifying miles via credit cards than ever, and even the major carriers have put out programs and promos where flyers can buy elite miles this year – that means rather than spending time on the airline and more money on tickets, you can earn the same elite miles by making your everyday (and not-so-everyday larger purchases). For example, the Citi Executive AAdvantage MasterCard gives cardholders 10,000 elite qualifying miles when they reach $40,000 in purchases each calendar year. The Delta Reserve card, which awards cardholders with 10,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles with the first purchase, and 15,000 more MQMs if a member hits $30,000 in spend within the calendar year and an additional 15,000 MQMs with $60,000 calendar year spend; and the Delta Platinum Amex offers 10,000 MQMs for $25,000 in annual spend, and another 10,000 MQMs for $50,000 in annual spending, for a total potential of 20,000 MQMs. Not only that, but now through December 31, 2013Delta is selling Medallion Qualifying Miles. You may buy between 2,500-10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) that will post to your 2013 MQM balance and apply toward 2014 Medallion status. For its part, American has introduced a new set of options for elites having a hard time requalifying where they can pay to boost up to their current elite level if they’re just a little bit short, or to renew their status altogether if they’re far short of requalifying – which means that many flyers who would have lost status altogether can now keep those elite ranks bloated and dilute benefits that would have gone to actual frequent flyers in the past.

Grim earning ratios on many of Delta's partners

Grim earning ratios on many of Delta’s partners

5. Fewer opportunities to earn with partners. While earning elite miles through credit card spend is more common today, earning them while actually flying airline partners is harder. This is mainly another Delta issue since earlier this year  This is another Delta issue since it hacked away at partner earning rates. Some airlines (including Korean, a full member of SkyTeam) no longer count at all. Not only that, but neither Delta nor United count flights ticketed by their partners toward their new elite revenue requirements, and many foreign carriers do not award elite miles (or only a fraction of flown miles) on partner flights depending on what fare class you purchase, so before you buy tickets, you have to look into some rather arcane earning charts. One noticeable exception to this trend is Alaska, which just announced elite mileage earning on all its airline partner flights.

Do you feel that elite status is changing? And if so, do you feel like it is for better or worse?

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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  • Texas281

    yes i got the email from united last night and shit bricks. i spend about a million dollars on my presidential united card a year and a few clicks of the button in November gets me platinum for the next calendar year. I rack up between all my cards about 4 million points on united a year alone. i don’t know how to meet the minimum 10k spend now to get 1k. I guess I am thinking maybe fly one or two international flights and use pay with points from my amex account would that work? but then i’m spending a million amex points (10,000 spend) just to get 1k with united. Hopefully a first class lufthansa flight will do the trick?

  • DanG

    The Presidential Plus EQM’s I do not believe counts towards 1K status. I don’t think it ever did.
    I do believe that this card (unfortunately no longer offered) is exempt from the revenue requirements for 2014.
    What letter was this?

  • Kestie

    This was a good post for me because it confirmed my decision this year to no longer try to attain silver status on UAL. I’ve been silver for several years now, but perhaps because I live in a hub city, the upgrades are few to non-existent and the loss of being able to reserve Econ Plus seats more than 24 hours ahead of time was very problematic for me as I need to know that my kids will be sitting next to me on a flight and want to reserve those seats when i buy the tix. The new spend requirement only drives home the conclusion that UAL doesn’t really care about its lowest elite tier–and instead seems to view Silver as a stopping point for folks on their way to attaining higher status. Psychologically, I have loved having elite status on one airline and a few hotel chains. I have also really enjoyed playing “the game” of figuring out how to attain elite status. But this past year, my company sent me on non-UAL trips where the airlines were more than adequate (e.g., Alaska Airlines) and I am tired of shelling out more money for UAL when other airlines are cheaper. So, bye bye UAL. My best wishes to those who are positioned by work or other means to attain higher elite–but for me, I’m done.

  • Texas281

    presidential plus EQM did not count towards 1k – but it does in 2015 – you need 100,000 EQM AND $10,000 revenue (PQD), see the second chart above. I read this post more carefully just now – it seems that Lufthansa may not count towards PQD. I did Lufthansa first but used my Lufthansa miles – I go to Frankfurt every year so I figure this year I will use my amex points to book the flight from here on out. I just want to book one flight so I can meet the PQD right off the bat. Yes for 2014 the presidential plus is exempt from the revenue requirement for 2014 – i already got my platinum status (max i can get for 2014). If you are in the program you are grandfathered in, but i guess only for a year? I hope there is some exception to the rule! If there let’s hear it. But I guess this is true – hopefully the elite lines and availability will open quite a bit because it did seem for the past 2 years everyone and their mom became elite.

  • 236Dakota

    The $25,000 credit card card spend to meet the elite qualifying spending requirement on UA does not apply for 1K or GS, only the lower tiers.

  • jasmine

    Elite status is turning into nothing. Its all about the credit cards and making money off the royalties which is alot. But it is a business so if you don’t like it go somewhere else and spend your money. Credit Cards are the new way to obtain status. Iam still waiting for the first airline to base elite status solely on credit card spend as soon as that happens all the others will join in.

  • Richard

    I still can’t quite understand why the MQD’s on Delta are such a big deal. You have to spend “$12,500!” GASP!! Is that a lot? It certainly doesn’t sound like a lot to me. I travel 95% domestically and buy 90% coach tickets. My MQD this year is $22,193. I don’t go out of my way to fly on Delta; they are generally cheaper for my routes. And I certainly enjoy being upgraded domestically 95% of the time. I ended the year at 145k MQM. But 30k are from a Delta Amex and 45k were rollover. So I earned only 70k miles but (my company) spent $22k to do it. Are MQD’s truly harder to earn than MQM’s? In my case it’s the opposite almost by a factor of 2-4x. I guess I’m doing this all wrong. But I admit I will enjoy the thinning of the herd with these changes.

  • Dieuwer

    The airline bean counters don’t understand that by taking away perks, travelers no longer have any incentive to fly an airline exclusively.
    In the short run it may make the airlines a little bit more money, but in the long run it will make travelers choose an airline based on the schedule and quality they provide for the least amount of money. The result will be margin compression and less profit for the airlines, not more.

  • Arcanum

    “… has been a major bone of contention for elites who expect complimentary upgrades and have seen their own upgrade chances diminish while the airlines sell seats they think should be theirs to any flyer willing to pay more for it …”

    I hope that statement was a bit tongue-in-cheek! It nicely encapsulates the whole problem with travelers today – a massive sense of entitlement (DYKWIA?!?!) You’re SUPPOSED to pay more to sit in a premium cabin! If the airline can get even $1 extra by selling it they’d be fools not to, and I support them (as an elite member, too).

    The policy of unlimited free upgrades has just accelerated the decline of the domestic flying experience. You now get a free premium seat, but it’s at the front of the Greyhound (with amenities and service to match!)

  • VeritasIII

    I recently status matched to Turkish airlines and have been really happy. As upgrades become harder to get domestically (I’m a lowly GM on Delta) I’ve instead got lounge access on EVERY SA flight (United, etc). Keep in mind that the US Carriers aren’t the only game in town.

  • Ogi

    “The policy of unlimited free upgrades has just accelerated the decline of the domestic flying experience.” – How so? What is your data to support this? I personally don’t care very much for any other aspect of elite status and think it as the main reason to be loyal to an airline. If this weren’t an option, I’d fly much more diversely and probably cheaper. I’m not sure that this “intangible” data is taken into account when stating something like this.

  • Ogi

    Yes they are. This year I’m a PM with ~ 4.5k in Delta spend. There’s another 3k in Air France and Alitalia that don’t count that would make this much less a problem (while it’s those expensive flights between Laguardia and Kansas City that racked up my MQDs on DL). Amex accounts for about 10k of those miles… But then, there’s the Amex :)

  • TSS_PL

    This should not matter much to those who travel domestically, but for people who have primarily earned their miles with international flights, this is a killer for two reasons. 1) The price per mile on international routes is a lot less than domestic. I typically buy an ATL-SIN ticket for about $1,400 which gets me around 20,000 miles, way less than the $.10 threshold Delta is implementing. 2) I can no longer use Korean Air or China Southern or China Airlines if I want to earn MQD’s. To put it into context. I have 75k miles this year (55K flown) with $4,800 MQDs. It means rollover is now worthless to me.

  • Greg

    This is a very timely post. A few things I would like to add.

    1) It takes a while to get off the hamster wheel. When US/AA merger announced in February, I had to plan my drop from Executive Platinum for 2015. I already had 50+K booked and was sitting on some system wides.

    2) Upgrades – upgrades are probably the biggest perk. As you said airlines are trying to sell them to non-elites. As well they are drastically reducing the upgrade inventory. As a Executive Platinum in past years I used to be able to choose flights to purchase based on where I could purchase a economy ticket and upgrade with a system wide. Now you need to play lottery and purchase flights and hope that on the day of departure you can upgrade. This makes it extremely difficult to fly with a spouse or friend as if the upgrade clears for one only – the other sits in the other cabin OR you need to play seat roulette and try to ask nicely for someone to change seats which can often result in a no.

    3)Reduced first and international business class fares. I have an upcoming trip in February, and I can either use my AA points
    to fly BA (as AA releases very little saver business class awards trans Atlantic) and pay 100K points + over $1000 fees or for just a little over $900 more I can outright purchase a business class ticket that leaves at the time I want AND I can even choose AA’s better 77W then be forced to fly BA inferior product.

    3) Miles – the other big lure for me used to be additional miles earned for being elite. This year we have see UA devalue almost 90%, yes 90% on some awards. The points are just not as useful as they used to be. Or they are releasing such little amounts of saver awards AA had last I checked ONE day with business class available from LAX, Dallas, Chicago, New York or Miami to London. ONE day! You need to be pretty flexible to redeem for an AA award.

  • JFK-LAX

    Do you have any info about mileage upgrades for Delta transcon? I am PM now, but could buy my way up to DM. Not worth it for 4 one-way upgrade chances, as I fly JFK-LAX-JFK about once a month, but would be worth it if real possibility for mileage upgrades.

  • James

    I think the problem is the airlines are not willing to change their programs enough. To me, basing their reward programs on the amount of miles you fly doesn’t make much sense. The problem is not that they are adding MQD’s the problem is that they are still using MQM’s, airlines should be rewarding people for the amount of money they spend not the miles flown, but for whatever reason they seem to be afraid to do this so we get these horribly convoluted plans that seem to try and do both. Just switch over to a revenue based rewards program and reward people who spend the most. No one has a problem with the fact that AMEX rewards people who spend $100,000 more than someone who spends $100 a year. It should be the same way with the airlines.

  • Texas281

    I just called Mileage Plus – it seems that the presidential plus card which is no longer available is exempt from this. Meaning I can continue to Earn EQM’s and transfer for Platinum every year. It seems 1k would not be exempt though. Can anyone else verify this?!?

  • thepointsguy

    You don’t need Diamond to do mileage upgrades, but need to be in K+ higher and no one really knows if Delta will release advance mileage upgrade space for those routes (they currently do not). http://thepointsguy.com/2013/12/delta-revamps-medallion-upgrade-program-introduces-global-and-regional-upgrades/

  • thepointsguy

    I actually think the first class domestic experience is getting better- nice planes, better food and service (at least on American and Delta).

  • thepointsguy

    Nor can you use any partner flight that isn’t on a Delta ticket. So even if your work pays for a $5k KLM ticket, it counts as $0 unless it is ticketed as a Delta codeshare or on DL ticket stock

  • Bill Rubin

    I’m entertained by all the posts/commentary about the death/shrinking benefits of loyalty programs for airlines. The fact is that airline loyalty programs were designed to help the airlines make more money–originally by luring frequent flyers to continue flying as much as possible with the same airline. As the market has evolved, so have the loyalty programs. Now the airlines clearly make as much if not more money from co-branded/reciprocating credit cards, so they have shifted some of the loyalty burden and perks to those with those cards. Obviously, bigger credit card spend suggests bigger spending customers for the airline on average, so it should surprise no one that this has evolved. With more such credit cards and mile/point bonuses available, it has become easier than ever to get more miles/points for award travel, and so the airlines have devalued those miles/points for such awards. As the airlines have merged and alliances and codeshare partnerships have evolved, the airlines have shifted and made more costly the availability of partner mileage awards, again in an attempt to better reward those who continue to stay loyal to the one airline as much as possible.

    NONE of this is surprising. NONE of this is bad. It’s called business. The airlines are not in the business of providing free flights for mile chasers; they are in business to make money from paying passengers as much as possible–and the more money they earn, and the more profitable they are, the more likely they can AFFORD to be generous with such awards, even if in some cases (like Delta’s) they choose to be stingier because they can afford to be.

    Suck it up, people. Award travel has been VERY generous for those who know what they’re doing and who fall into the category of “haves” who can match up well with the categories that airlines value and that give the most miles/points. If you can spend $25k on a credit card for your normal everyday living expenses and manage to get a free award ticket out of it, even if not in the same class of service as you once could, then you still are benefitting more than anyone otherwise would be.

    Those who spend more on credit cards win. Those who fly longhaul routes paid for by their companies win. Those who fly many shorthaul routes paid for by their companies win. The business traveler and wealthier pleasure traveler have always been the bread and butter of the airline industry, and that remains the same today. Award travel is still far more accessible than ever before because of the credit card offerings. The world changes. So do we.

  • Bill Rubin

    I believe you will find that the Presidential card allows earning of PQM up to the Platinum level–but you can’t spend on that card to qualify for 1K. I have one, too.

  • Texas281

    yeah i agree.

  • ogi

    amen!

  • ogi

    Delta really devalued PM/DM status with this transcon change.

  • Amflyer

    Short term they will win. Long term I will start optimizing for things other than perks. Instead of spending 20 bucks more a carrier that I have status with, I’ll pay less for for the same flight with someone else. The airlines provide a mostly commodity service

  • Amflyer

    Yes, but how sustainable is a loyalty program that is built on credit card revenue? At some point don’t the airlines have to differentiate by their product an service to get steady repeat business?

  • Roger

    I am the other way around, I bought 2 last minute business class international tickets in the last two months for about $18,000, (usually my trips are 1 week out at the most) but only got 35,000k MQM out of it. I don’t have any delta credit cards so at this rate I my spend $60K + w/ delta before I get my Diamound status. So overall I don’t mind having a MQD requirement just wish that last minute business tickets would get more MQMs.

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