Throwback Thursday: Airline Elite Perks We Wish Still Existed

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With the accelerating recent erosion of elite benefits – including Delta’s limiting same-day confirmed flight changes for Medallion members, United aggressively selling upgrades instead of conferring them upon elites, and the end of American AAdvantage Gold members being able to select Main Cabin Extra seating for free coming on Monday (they’ll still be able to purchase it at a 50% discount or for free within 24 hours of departure) – it’s more clear than ever that airline elite status just isn’t what it used to be.

Oh, how we miss the airline perks of yesteryear
Oh, how we miss the champagne wishes and caviar dreams of the airline perks of yesteryear.

Like onboard sleeping berths, multi-course meals in coach, and free-flowing champagne – the formerly fabulous perks of elite status seem to have disappeared into the glory days of aviation’s golden age. So for a little fun today, I thought I’d ask TPG Assistant Editor Melanie Wynne to do a #ThrowbackThursday post on bygone airline elite perks we wish still existed – and yes, these are all real!

American Airlines’ AAirpass 

Introduced in 1981 – back when airlines still turned a decent profit – American introduced the AAirpass. It guaranteed a lifetime’s worth of unlimited first-class travel for a one-time cost of $250,000. For an additional $150,000, you could buy a companion pass, and ensure you’d never again travel (at the front of the plane) alone.

The airline hoped this program would appeal to big corporations who wanted to reward their top employees, but instead, AAirpasses were snapped up by some of the world’s wealthiest people, like baseball Hall-of-Famer Willie Mays, America’s Cup skipper Dennis Conner and computer magnate Michael Dell. American Airlines essentially provided people with what amounted to their own fleet of private jets!

The benefits of American's original AAirpass were even more amazing than this: a grand piano on a 747
The benefits of American’s original, unlimited AAirpass were even more amazing than a grand piano on a 747

Several long-haul flights per week? Itineraries so complicated it could take lawyers to sort them all out? No matter, as the AAirpass came with access to elite travel agents. AAirpass holders made a habit of everything from winging off to London to try a new restaurant to making a little scratch on the side by subletting seats to the highest bidder.

Though it took almost 15 years for American to wise up, they finally caught on that they’d been out-foxed. In 1990, they raised the AAirpass price (with companion) to $600,000, then again in 1993 to a whopping $1.01 million. By 1994, though, the airline threw in the towel and stopped selling these original, unlimited AAirpasses altogether. (The remaining AAirpass is merely a shell of its former self.)

United Air Lines’ “100,000 Mile Club” Member Award Plaque

Awarded back in the 1950s and ’60s, these wooden slabs of status booty featured a sculpted metal medallion representing a United Air Lines (later to become United Airlines) DC-3 circling the earth four times – roughly equaling 100,000 air miles. Fancy metal stars could be added, each one representing an additional 100,000 miles earned by the flyer.

For United's elite fliers, only a plaque would do
For United’s elite fliers, only a plaque would do

This may not seem like a lot of miles these days, but for a UAL passenger to hit 100,000 flight miles in the 1950s was rare – the then-domestic airline’s route system was both limited and exclusive to the US. Like a miniature night sky, the 7-star plaque (count ’em, seven!) pictured here was presented to flyer Lewis Clement and (as was the usual custom) signed  by William A. “Pat” Patterson, who was the President of United Airlines from 1934 to 1966.

Northwest WorldPerks Platinum Elite Status

Northwest is no longer, having merged with Delta in 2008, but the top-tier of their WorldPerks program lives on in legend. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, if you were lucky enough to accrue 75,000 miles on Northwest and earn Platinum Elite Status, your mileage stash would never expire. (Unless, as in the case of this disgruntled Minneapolis customer, you complained about Northwest’s service just one time too many.)

Other benefits of WorldPerks Platinum Elite were unlimited free first-class domestic upgrades, as well as two off-peak round-trips within the continental US each year. You’d also have access to Elite Personal Privileges, special invitations and offers that were shrouded in secrecy.

Northwest's WorldPerks: like the Amex Black Card of their day
Northwest’s WorldPerks: like the Amex Black Card of frequent flier programs

Continental OnePass Infinite Elite Status

Back in the early to mid-1990s, Continental OnePass offered their magical-sounding Infinite Elite status. Available to those who earned Gold Elite status for five particular, consecutive years (1988 through 1992), this was billed as lifetime elite status with miles that never expired and for which they’d never need to re-qualify. It was basically the same as lifetime elite status today, only instead of having to fly 1 million lifetime miles, you just had to achieve Continental’s then top-tier status (Bronze and Silver were below it) by flying 70,000 miles per year (and in later years, 60,000 miles).

Offering benefits similar to those of WorldPerks, the One Pass Infinite Elite was a real brass ring to those who managed to catch it – but it wasn’t as infinite as it seemed. In 1999, Continental shifted its tier structure and created the 75,000-mile Platinum status. If you were an Infinite Elite member who qualified for Platinum at that time, you were allowed to keep your Infinite Elite status. Anyone else was  left out of Continental’s infinite loop – forever and ever and ever.

Fo a brief, shining moment, Infinite Elite status seemed like a reality for more than just a few
For a brief, shining moment, Infinite Elite status really did seem…infinite

Pan Am World Pass

In the 1980s, Pan Am was flying high, and its World Pass frequent flier program offered its most elite customers an Ultimate Reward: 30 days of unlimited first-class travel, anywhere in the world that Pan Am flew. By 1991, the airline’s fortunes had crashed and the airline became defunct.

However, a new, much smaller version of Pan Am relaunched in 1996, and re-introduced a more democratic version of the World Pass, where everyone was treated like an elite.

Starting off all new members with a 1,000-mile enrollment bonus, World Pass didn’t make anyone hit the usual 25,000-mile mark to get the keys to the Pan Am kingdom. Elite status was awarded at 15,000 miles, and free flight awards were bookable with 20,000 miles. It also allowed up to three members – no matter their relationship – to pool mileage for free flights.

The main drawback? The revised Pan Am only ran a handful of flights between JFK and either MIA or LAX; JFK and SFO; CHI and SJU; and MIA and LAX. World Pass may have doled out great perks, but it hardly gave you a world pass.

This video was so full of promise…but sadly, the glory days of Pan Am and its World Pass are both now defunct.

TWA’s Frequent Flight Bonus & Aviators Programs

It wasn’t all free-flowing bubbly and first class flights, though. Trans World Airlines, or TWA, was once one of the biggest airlines in the world but had fallen into serious financial straits by the time American took it over in 2001. However, in 1998, TWA launched its three-tier, revenue-tracking Aviators program, which allowed members to qualify through dollars spent, miles flown and transatlantic flights taken. Geared towards last-minute, short-haul business travelers, the highest level – Platinum – could be achieved by either accruing 100,000 miles, making $20,000 in fare purchases, or flying 20 transatlantic segments. Suddenly those new revenue-based programs at United and Delta don’t look so new anymore, do they?

Have any great stories about past airline perks? We’d sure love to hear about them!

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