With Delta extending elite status, will American and United follow suit?
This week, Delta Air Lines made waves among frequent flyers with the promise that elite status would be extended for an entire extra year, matching the airline's generosity back when the COVID-19 pandemic brought global air travel to a screeching halt in the spring of 2020.
Notably, Delta was the first U.S. carrier to announce a status extension then, back in April of last year, and now the carrier holds that honor again in 2021.
For more TPG news and deals delivered to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
At the moment, the travel climate is entirely different than it was this time last year, however — while a blanket extension was largely unavoidable in 2020, Americans have since returned to the skies, with many making an extra effort to requalify for elite status this year.
Related: Delta Air Lines extends elite status, certificates and more for another year
Delta's move may seem especially generous on the surface, but it has the potential to alienate customers who have gone the extra mile to qualify for perks — in some cases booking flights out of pocket to compensate for a lack of work-related trips.
The airline has a solution: Beginning in February of 2022, customers who earned status this year will appear higher on the upgrade list than those who received an extension. Platinum and Diamond members will also be able to select new Choice Benefits, while those with extended status will not.
Will other airlines follow?
While all Delta Medallion members can now rest easy, knowing that their status will be valid through Jan. 31, 2023, even if they're unable to fly, elites at other carriers are likely eager to learn whether or not their program of choice will follow suit.
So far, American AAdvantage and United MileagePlus have been focused on adding promotions that make it easier to qualify for status in 2021, even though some flying is still required.
American, for example, is currently offering flyers an opportunity to earn bonus elite-qualifying miles for every flight they take through Aug. 31. That's in addition to a sizable elite-qualifying dollar deposit, available to all current elites.
Alternatively, American will waive the EQD requirement this year after you spend $30,000 on any cobranded AAdvantage credit card, but unfortunately that waiver isn't valid for Executive Platinum qualification.
The airline is also offering current elites the opportunity to extend their current status through Jan. 31, 2023 — by spending $15,000 on an AAdvantage credit card or earning 2,000 EQDs from AA or partner-operated flights between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, 2021 — but you won't be eligible for elite choice rewards, including systemwide upgrades, if you go this route.
Finally, some AA Concierge Key members have reported having their status extended through early 2023, though the airline hasn't confirmed the move. Other AAdvantage status hopefuls can also get closer to elite status by crediting flights operated by Alaska Airlines and JetBlue.
As for United, the carrier recently announced that it'll be extending perks for all Global Services members who earned status based on their travels — members who received Global Services as part of a corporate contract or incentive may not have their perks automatically renewed.
Currently, that status extension only applies to the carrier's invite-only tier. Anyone hoping to earn Silver, Gold, Platinum or Premier 1K will need to qualify based on their 2021 travels, but like American, United has offered a handful of promotions aimed at making it easier for elites to close the gap.
First, like American, United reduced its 2021 qualification requirements across the board. United also began the year by giving all current United elites a deposit of Premier Qualifying Points. And then the quarterly promotions began kicking in.
In the first quarter, MileagePlus members had an opportunity to earn up to a 100% bonus for their first three PQP-qualifying trips — for up to 4,500 bonus PQPs. Then, with a promotion that ended this week, members could earn up to 3,750 bonus PQPs, based on their status level and completed trips.
Many of the promotions we've seen so far have been designed to incentivize travel, with the understanding that many elites won't be able to fly — or spend — as much as they did before the pandemic. It's clear that American and United started the year hoping to avoid a status extension, and despite Delta's move, I'm inclined to think that plan remains.
Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest and other U.S.-based airlines haven't yet committed to extending status for another year, but it's always possible they could follow Delta's move, as well.
What makes Delta's situation different
It's important to note that Delta's in a slightly different position than just about every other U.S. carrier. While the airline managed to edge out the competition in TPG's best airlines report, besting Southwest and other front-runners, Delta has been sorely lacking in the customer service department, to the extent that customers trying to reach an agent have been spending the better part of a day waiting on hold.
Delta's excruciating hold times haven't gone unnoticed. Alongside the status extension announcement, the airline published a letter from CEO Ed Bastian, titled "We know you expect more – we’re taking action."
"While we are pleased to welcome you back, the unexpected pace of the return of our customers has resulted in some unforeseen challenges as we ramp up to meet demand and handle a record-breaking level of calls," Bastian said in the note.
Bastian notes that the airline is "taking significant actions to alleviate these pain points" — including extending elite status for another year. In other words, the status extension is a concession of sorts, with the understanding that it hasn't been smooth sailing for Delta flyers in 2021.
On the other hand, customers have largely had more success reaching reservations agents at American and United. Members of the TPG team have had notable waits reaching American agents on occasion, but we're talking a few minutes here and there — certainly not the day-long holds we've experienced with Delta.
United, on the other hand, has typically picked up within a few minutes — personally, as a Premier 1K member, I've always been able to reach a United agent right away.
Overall, Delta's call center challenges appear to be far more widespread, and it's been an ongoing issue — I encountered very long waits last spring, and the delays only seem to have gotten worse as time went on.
With five months left in 2021, there's still plenty of time left for travelers to close the gap and qualify for another year of status on their own. It's possible travel may slow down as Americans grow more concerned about the delta variant, but that hasn't been the case so far.
Related: The delta variant hasn’t made a dent in US travel demand, airlines say
Additionally, the incredibly busy summer travel period has likely made it possible for travelers to add a significant number of elite-qualifying credits to their accounts — many elites are probably well on track to earn status for another year, and with all of the bonus opportunities, some may have already qualified for 2021.
TPG reached out to American and United for more insight, but both airlines aren't yet ready to share their plans. While we'll have to wait and see what's to come, assuming American and United are pleased with the progress they've seen so far, I wouldn't expect blanket status extensions again.