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Why US airlines should follow Qantas' lead and extend all members' elite status

March 26, 2020
10 min read
Qantas 747
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In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, we've seen countless companies suspend employee business travel, dozens of airlines cut routes and tens of thousands of passengers cancel spring and summer vacations. While there are many things to worry about during this time of uncertainty, one thing on the minds of many frequent travelers is elite status.

This is for good reason too: For all intents and purposes, the travel year is shorter in 2020. Non-essential travel is either highly discouraged or completely banned at this point, and many countries have restricted entry for foreign nationals. This leaves us frequent flyers with fewer trips to enjoy our hard-earned elite status perks — and less time to requalify for status for 2021.

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With this in mind, many travelers — myself included — are calling upon airlines to either extend elite status validity or reduce the requirements for elite status in 2020. I think the latter is the most likely outcome for airlines here in the U.S., but as Sydney-based Qantas has shown, this may not be the right option for travelers or the airline.

Earlier in the week, Qantas announced that it will extend all of its elite members' respective status tiers by a year. This was a huge announcement, and I think the major U.S. airlines — namely Alaska, American, Delta and United — have a lot to learn as to how this not only affects individual travelers, but how it affects each airline's reputation and future loyalty too.

READ MORE: Complete guide to airline elite status during the coronavirus outbreak

There's a lot to unpack here, but let's take a look at why U.S. airlines should follow Qantas' lead and extend elite status validity for all of their elite members.

Basics of Qantas' status extension

Qantas aircraft parked at Sydney Airport. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Qantas is largely known as the flag carrier of Australia, but the airline has a huge global network, with flights that can connect Australians to cities in Asia, Europe, the U.S. and beyond. Because of this vast route network, many Australian business travelers frequently hop on Qantas flights every week.

The airline made headlines in mid-March when it announced that it's halting international flights until at least the end of May due to the global coronavirus outbreak. This news wasn't entirely a surprise, as the outbreak has been ongoing for weeks, but it did raise a question for many Australia-based travelers: What happens to my elite status?

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Thankfully, the airline responded in due time. Coming as a surprise to many, the airline is extending elite status validity for all of its elite customers by 12 months, regardless of how much they've flown during their current qualifying period. Better yet, any elite member that would've been downgraded to a lower elite status will have their original status extended automatically.

Here are the details:

  • If your membership year was slated to end between March and June 2020, you'll receive a 12-month extension by March 27, 2020.
  • If your membership year was slated to end between July 2020 and Feb. 2021, you'll receive a 12-month extension by April 9, 2020.

This is a very generous status match, and one that I think will pay off for the airline once the travel world returns to normalcy. Likewise, I think it's a better and more responsible choice than reducing elite qualification requirements for 2021 status requalification.

The problem with reducing qualification requirements

One rumor that's made its way through the world of travel sites is that U.S. airlines may opt to reduce qualification requirements for 2021 elite status. While I can see why the airlines may want to go down this path, I believe it seriously overlooks a few major problems.

Reduced qualifying requirements encourage unnecessary travel

Qantas is still running many domestic flights, but in extending elite status validity instead of reducing qualification requirements, Qantas is telling its customers that they don't have to take these flights just to requalify. This is a good thing: Unnecessarily taking these flights is potentially dangerous and could contribute to the spread of the virus around Australia.

If a U.S. airline was to offer reduced status requirements while still operating flights — even with substantial cuts — some members may opt to take advantage of cheap fares to beef up their qualifying-mile balances. This would not only risk the continued spread of the coronavirus; it could go against the many "shelter-in-place" or "stay-at-home" orders issued by various municipalities nationwide.

This will continue to fuel the problem that put the airlines in this situation to begin with. In the interest of public health, airlines should strongly consider offering a status match instead of reduced status requirements. It will keep unnecessary travel to a minimum, slow the virus' spread and hopefully help us return to travel normalcy soon.

Even reduced qualifying requirements will be tough to meet

Further, extending elite status tells elite customers that they can resume flying on their own terms. To contrast this, no matter how low airlines reduce elite-qualifying requirements, airlines are still telling their elite members that they have to fly a certain amount in 2020.

This is a problem because — even if the coronavirus outbreak is contained at some point this year — many frequent travelers won't feel comfortable getting back on a plane right away. Many elites may have already missed large international conferences that help them earn a significant portion of their elite-qualifying miles or points, and some companies (or countries) may not relax travel restrictions for months.

Air travel is unlikely to return to its peak in 2020 either. The international economy has taken a huge hit due to the virus outbreak, meaning that many consultants and other business travelers won't be on the road for some time to come. This means that airlines will likely fly fewer routes after the virus is contained, and elite members will spend less time in the sky — meaning, perhaps, that many loyal elites still wouldn't qualify for 2021 elite status, even with reduced requirements.

This doesn't even consider the fact that newly-minted elite members have been (and will continue to be) unable to enjoy the status benefits they rightfully earned for the 2020 calendar year. Without a status extension, they'd be left without these benefits if they choose to get back on the road sometime in 2021.

This isn't an issue for Qantas elites. With their statuses being extended outright, these elite members have extra time to both enjoy the benefits they've earned and have more time to fully requalify for elite status on their own terms. There's no doubt that this is a major win for customers.

A status extension is good for the airlines, too

By extending elite status validity, Qantas is not only giving its customers more time to enjoy the benefits they've earned, but the airline is showing that — above all — the airline cares about its customers and their well-being.

This is a major win for the airline too. The status extension will give Qantas a positive brand image for years to come and keep elite members from switching to a competitor like Virgin Australia. This is even more important when you consider that airlines may offer lucrative promotions like status matches after normalcy returns to the skies, making it more tempting than ever for frequent flyers to switch carriers. By blazing the trail, Qantas can (rightly) claim that it's looking out for its members.

Finally, a status extension also may be the simplest solution to concerns around the coronavirus. Reworking an entire qualification system based on a partial year of flying presents a lot of gray area, especially with a fluid situation like the current outbreak. When is travel likely to pick up again? Is there a one-size-fits-all approach, or should individual travelers be able to select a timeframe? Instead of navigating these complexities, an airline could simply take Qantas' approach: extend for a year and move on.

How will US airlines respond?

American Airlines, United, Alaska and JetBlue planes at LA, March 2019 (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)
It remains to be seen how the U.S. airlines will address 2020 elite status. (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

It's worth pointing out that U.S. carriers haven't ignored elite members' calls for extensions entirely. Perhaps the best example of this came from Delta and the email sent out by CEO Ed Bastian on March 15, which included the following:

"We’re grateful for the loyalty of millions of customers who choose to fly with Delta each year, and I know some of you have questions regarding Medallion Status and promotions. Please know that we hear you and understand your concerns. Right now, we are 100 percent focused on helping our customers with immediate flight needs. As soon as we get through this critical time, we will address questions about what we are doing to help ensure you can continue to enjoy Status and benefits when you fly now, and in the future."

Of course, a promise in an email is one thing. It's an entirely different matter to move forward with announcing and implementing changes. That being said, it's nice to know that our concerns are being heard, and I certainly hope that all carriers will address them in the days and weeks to come.

The coronavirus outbreak has given the U.S. carriers a unique opportunity to regain the trust of their respective elite travelers. If they follow Qantas' lead, I strongly believe that elite members will come back to their airlines of choice when it's time for them to fly again. These travelers will rest easily knowing that their elite status benefits are waiting for them, and they'll take solace in knowing that they're seen as more than just dollar signs by the airline.

Bottom line

The major U.S. airlines have a lot to learn from Qantas when it comes to handling the coronavirus outbreak. If major U.S. airlines follow Qantas' lead by offering an elite status extension, they have a chance to improve their brand image and keep the business that they'll badly need after the coronavirus outbreak is contained.

Regardless of how airlines choose to handle elite status extensions, I do think that all of the major U.S. carriers will offer some kind of benefits to their elite customers this year. This may be through reduced qualification requirements, bonus elite-qualifying miles on flights or even airline credit card incentives. Only time will tell.

Feature photo by Ryan Patterson

Featured image by (Photo by Ryan Patterson)