How American, Delta and United should reward elites who actually earn status in 2020

Apr 23, 2020

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In light of the coronavirus, we’re seen airlines make unprecedented changes to their loyalty programs. Because so many frequent flyers won’t be taking to the skies for a good portion of 2020, American, Delta and United have all extended elite status until Jan. 31, 2022.

As part of these updates, American and United have also made it much easier to earn status this year by reducing the elite-qualifying thresholds. But, here’s the thing: If you currently hold elite status this year that’s being extended anyway, there’s very little benefit to flying with your preferred carrier for the rest of the year — once it’s safe to do so, of course.

American and United are only issuing new upgrade certificates to top-tier elites who requalify, but other than that, there’s been no incentive for others to earn new or requalifying status this year.

And since airlines are going to need their frequent flyers to come back in droves, here are five things that American, Delta and United should do to actually reward those who earn status in 2020.

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Give lounge passes and companion certificates

When you hold or spend money on an airline’s cobranded credit card, there’s a good chance you’ll get some type of certificate to use during your travels. The two most popular that we’ve seen are one-time lounge passes and companion certificates that allow you to bring a plus one on your flight for a flat fee.

Related: Best airline miles credit cards of 2020

These certificates are a great way for airlines to highlight their premium club offerings and drive loyalty among both frequent travelers and their companions. As such, it’d be great if we saw American, Delta and United offer elites a package of these certificates for earning status in 2020.

Delta already does this to some extent with its Choice Benefits, which can be selected once a year by Platinum and Diamond Medallion members. But, every elite — even if they received extended status — is receiving more Choice Benefits next year. Sure, this is generous, but it’d be great if we saw Delta (and the others) sweeten the deal by offering a tiered selection of certificates for earning status in 2020.

Gift status to a companion

This idea comes from our neighbor up north, Air Canada. The Montreal-based carrier is offering elites who requalify in 2020 to share that status with a friend or family member. This is a really innovative program that actually makes a lot of sense — effectively encouraging members to travel later in 2020 (once it’s safe to do so) by dangling the carrot of extending the perks of that status to a loved one.

I love sharing my hard-earned status with loved ones (which I’ve been able to do through the World of Hyatt Guest of Honor program). It also shows my companion what life is like as an elite member, which could even encourage them to become more loyal to a single travel provider.

That’s why it’d be great if American, Delta and United all offered the ability to gift elite status to a companion if you earn or requalify for status this year. It doesn’t necessarily need to be valid for the full term (through all of 2021), nor does it have to be the exact same tier you earn, but there’s something nice about being able to share your perks.

Higher upgrade priority

Before the coronavirus pandemic, getting a complimentary upgrade as a United Premier 1K was almost impossible. In fact, I missed every single complimentary upgrade request I made in January and February.

Though it’ll probably take a while for travel demand to return to pre-COVID levels, complimentary upgrades will most likely still be hard to come by, especially being based in a hub city. Plus, there’s going to be a ton of elites next year — all those with extended status and those who earn new status or bumped up a tier in 2020.

Related: How to upgrade United flights

That’s why I propose that upgrades should be prioritized within an elite tier based on whether you actually earned status in 2020. We always hear airline executives talk about rewarding the most loyal customers. Well, 2020 is going to be the year when an airline can really determine which travelers are its most loyal flyers. 

In fact, American already does this really well by using the 12-month rolling Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) as a tie-breaker on the upgrade list. This isn’t going to be perfect for next year — thanks to the months-long gap in flying due to the coronavirus — but it’s definitely a start.

Fast-track options to 2022 status

Airlines don’t yet know the full implications of the coronavirus on future travel. But one thing’s certain: It’s not going to snap back to where it was come Jan. 2021. That’s why Delta and United have already pledged to make it easier to earn status in 2021 for 2022.

Delta’s doing that by rolling over all Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) earned in 2020 into 2021. United hasn’t actually announced specifics, other than promising that we’ll find out the details later this year. And it’s been radio silence from American about what’s going to happen to earning status in 2021.

Related: Earning Medallion elite status on Delta without flying

But, as airlines devise their plans for 2021, they shouldn’t forget about the elites who actually earned or requalified for status in 2020. These are some of their most loyal customers, and they may deserve a some type of fast track to status in 2022. Perhaps it comes in the form of some extra elite-qualifying miles or dollars, but it’d go a long way in buying loyalty from frequent flyers.

“Joker” award redemption

Even though we’ve already seen examples of surges in award availability due to the coronavirus, it’s still quite hard to find seats on some flagship routes. To recognize an elite who qualifies for status this year, the big three should award redemption “jokers” that can be used to manually unlock saver award space on desired flights.

British Airways has this as a published perk of its Gold Guest List elite tier, and it’s a popular benefit amongst our TPG UK crew.

Perhaps this benefit should only be reserved for top-tier elites and limited to once or twice a year, but it’d for sure be a lucrative perk that would generate more business from loyal customers. United is the only U.S. carrier to offer a version of this today, dubbed the “Skip Waitlist” feature. However, that option is hardly a good deal, and it was rarely available pre-COVID.

Note that United also makes additional award seats available to cobranded credit card holders and Premier elite travelers, but this is controlled by revenue management. It would be great for all carriers to provide options to “force” award space on a specific itinerary.

RELATED: Best credit cards for United travelers

Bottom line

Airlines have already extended status through the end of Jan. 2022, so there’s little reason for frequent flyers to give incremental business to their preferred carrier for the rest of 2020.

That’s why American, Delta and United should all offer incentives to get passengers back in the air — once it’s safe to do so. This can come in the form of the ability to gift status, earn valuable “joker” redemptions, get prioritized upgrades and more.

2020 is shaping up to be a year when airlines are going to need to fill their planes. Why not start with adding valuable rewards for their most loyal customers?

All photos by the author. 

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