Coach Crunch: Driving or destroying loyalty

That's me in a 28" pitch slimline seat from B/E Aerospace (now part of Rockwell Collins) at AIX 2017 in Hamburg this past April.
That's me in a 28" pitch slimline seat from B/E Aerospace (now part of Rockwell Collins) at AIX 2017 in Hamburg this past April.

Yes, seats are getting tighter and tighter. The latest round of such came out as news yesterday of American Airlines planning to add a couple rows of seats to its 737MAX aircraft compared to the similarly sized 737-800s flying today. These new planes will now feature three rows of seats at 29″ pitch, dropping below a threshold previously reserved for the very low end of the LCC market.

The reaction has been almost universally negative from customers, unsurprisingly. But two specific posts on social media this afternoon caught my eye as they take diametrically opposed views on the value of airline loyalty in this new era.

That's me in a 28" pitch slimline seat from B/E Aerospace (now part of Rockwell Collins) at AIX 2017 in Hamburg this past April.
That’s me in a 28″ pitch slimline seat from B/E Aerospace (now part of Rockwell Collins) at AIX 2017 in Hamburg this past April. I even managed to slide my legs forward a bit under the seat without crushing my knees.

Driving Loyalty

On the one hand, loyalty is a good thing. Elite status gets perks and one of those is access to the extra legroom seats on board. Details vary by program and status level but top tier elites typically get access at the time of booking while bottom tier elites can pay at booking or get access to any remaining seats at 24 hours prior to flight. So loyalty has some value there, but at what cost? Would it be cheaper to fly a mix of airlines and buy the legroom when you need/want it?

Read more: Economy class worsens and I’m part of the problem

If fares and flight times are the same then getting the perks is obviously a good deal. But if you’re paying extra to get there – especially in an era where airlines are tying loyalty to spending patterns, not just miles flown – is it really worthwhile? Of course, there are other benefits of loyalty beyond just getting the extra legroom seats, but that is probably the most consistently delivered benefit with real value associated to it.

Destroying Loyalty


At the other end of the spectrum are those who feel that paying any premium to fly with a preferred carrier is a lost cause. Sure, that loyalty might get you a couple extra inches of space on board but that’s easy enough to buy these days. And the proliferation of new carriers and routes means more opportunities to explore different destinations along the way. No longer a “slave” to connecting at Heathrow or Narita or Newark or Frankfurt or Paris, the opportunities to see more places is a refreshing change of pace. Ditto for getting to fly on different airlines and meet different types of travelers along the way.

Other Factors

Of course, status isn’t only about the seat. Neither is travel. Priority handling when flights go awry, shorter check-in lines, free bags, and lounge access are some of the other benefits status can bring, depending on the airlines and tier. Then again, many of those benefits can be purchased ad hoc or realized via a credit card for a much lower fee than steering travel spend to meet a status goal. That is not necessarily an easy set of numbers to evaluate the RoI on.

Also, there’s this crazy notion of loyalty, no matter how irrational it may be, that drives behavior just a little bit. We continue to love the brick, knowing full well it does not love us back.

So, which way does your loyalty play?

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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.


  1. I really wish that AA execs would sit in these 29-inch seats in any of the routes those planes fly on and see for themselves whether they’d want their customers/clients to sit in them too.

  2. I’ve given up on loyalty, my last gasp was Hyatt. At this point I’m steering my spend to convenience and price. I figure that it might take me all of a year to work to get to elite status with a company but that company can kill my perks for that in a matter of keystrokes. I’m more willing to pay myself with something flexible, like Chase points, and get some value out of it. Shoot, if it comes down to it I can pay my credit card bill with those points, good luck doing that with hotel or airline points. I’m loyal to me now, not some for-profit chain…

  3. Loyalty is only worth it in two scenarios:

    1. It’s someone else’s money – you work for a company you have no equity in and don’t really care how it’s spent.

    2. You are a top-tier elite with massive spend

    I’ve spent 4 years as a mid-tier elite in a variety of programs (1-year before that as top tier elite) and decided it’s just not worth it. I tracked my spending and the premium over other carriers.

    For hotels – Priceline Express and Hotwire. So much cheaper. Free breakfast? I saved $80 over your booking. I’ll buy myself breakfast and laugh all the way to the bank.

    Oh and don’t get me wrong. I have tons of miles and points, I just earn them through CC churning and intelligent spending. No reason to earn them from actually staying somewhere or flying X airline. Be free. Unbundle and use it to your own advantage.

  4. I think in the past the way loyalty programs were structured when the economy did badly the “elites” could be counted on to provide a steady stream of business. But the next time?

    Almost every perk can be bought now which therefore just comes down to price, service and route. We will see how that benefits the major carriers soon enough.

  5. I think the airline programs went from “Loyalty” programs to “rewards” programs when they went revenue based and reduced elite benefits when business got better.
    For many regular travelers, buying the best fare (price, travel time, product,…) beats being loyal to any airline. If you are a business traveler in a captive hub, status might still make sense, but for most others, being a free agent will improve the travel experience without costing more…

  6. Well, at least they’re not putting passengers in the overhead bins, wink wink…

  7. I just got around to reading this today and kept thinking the quote about appreciable differences seemed familiar until I realized it was my FB status…. haha.

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