In defense of airline elite status

There have been a couple columns over the past few weeks which called into question the value of elite status on airlines.  Actually they do more than that.  Chris Elliott, an otherwise generally pretty good advocate for traveler rights, calls status “generally meaningless” and Nick Kralev’s (also generally on the mark) column this week asks what the value is anymore for such status.

I’m not really sure what burr got under Chris Elliott’s saddle that caused him to rant about status and mileage runs, particularly as it wasn’t really even pertinent to the story he was writing.  And Nick Kralev pretty much whiffed completely on the reasons for gaining such status.  Let’s start with the part of the column that is mostly accurate:

It’s no secret that, little by little, U.S. airlines have been reducing elite benefits in the last several months — decreasing the frequent-flier miles you can earn for flights but increasing the number of miles needed to redeem "awards," while adding various new fees.

This is only mostly true.  Yes, carriers have been increasing fees and the number of points required to redeem awards.  But they have been increasing those across the board, not just for elite passengers.  Kralev goes on to state that, “One of the most important elite benefits is the ability to redeem miles for "award" tickets in first and business class.”  Again, that has absolutely nothing to do with elite status; those awards are open to everyone.

Let me be clear here.  I agree that the elite programs are generally worse today than they were five years ago.  Fees are up, fine print is finer and there are more elites than ever vying for the limited pool of benefits.  But the things being ranted about by these two columnists are completely missing the point of elite status and its value.

One of the biggest benefits for elites is the availability of upgrades.  Every carrier has a slightly different policy when it comes to upgrades, but the ability to fly in the big comfy seat while paying for only the crappy small seat is a HUGE benefit and one that actually hasn’t been particularly devalued by any carrier.  In fact, looking at the expected drop in travel these days I’d say that even the lower level elites are going to have a reasonable run at upgrades going forward this year.

There is also increased award availability for elites on most carriers.  With all the complaints about how hard it is to find reward seats (which I don’t necessarily buy as I generally do OK on that front, but that’s another discussion) having a leg up on the search for inventory is a good thing.  Elite status offers that.  For some carriers the “rule-buster” awards to guarantee last seat availability also now require elite status.  Can one affix a dollar value to that?  Probably not.  But that doesn’t mean that it is worthless, especially on the day that you end up needing to use it.

Elites generally collect more miles than non-elites through various bonuses.  This makes reward travel easier as you have more miles to work with.  Yes, carriers are cutting these bonuses (US Airways and Continental made cuts on this front for 2009), but they are still generally there in some form and still better than a stick in the eye.

And Delta certainly screwed the pooch when they revoked a whole bunch of benefits from their elites earlier this year, including the waiver of change fees on reward tickets, perhaps my favorite benefit of all.  But one airline being stupid doesn’t mean that the whole concept is ruined.  And Delta did cave in on some of the changes, but they are clearly playing by the rules of take away a lot, give back a little and call it a compromise so the customer feels like they won something in their protests.

Top-tier elite status also still grants access to lounges on international travel, arguably more valuable today than it was last year. Plus free checked baggage allowances. That is certainly more valuable today than it was a couple years ago.

I don’t think anyone should go out of their way to hit elite status if they aren’t flying enough to take advantage of the benefits.  But for folks who legitimately travel enough that being elite is an easily attainable goal, it really does still hold value, even if it isn’t quite the same as it was in the “good old days.”  As one of the subjects in Kralev’s piece says, ‘”Flying is such a miserable experience, and elite status is about all there is to take the edge off the pain.”  Of course, if you’re paying a lot extra to get that elite status or the carrier to which you are loyal does not return the favor, making a change may be reasonable.  But walking away completely rarely is.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.