Greetings, MileValue readers! You may have noticed that I haven’t posted recently, as I’ve been helping out Scott and Tahsir with our increasingly popular Award Booking Service.
I did want to take a few minutes and explain my stance on airline elite status which was featured in today’s New York Times. [Scott: Everyone should click just to see Bill's photo. The pose is hilarious.]
“I’ve definitely noticed an erosion in benefits since I became elite,” said Bill Wilkes, a Delta SkyMiles Gold member, the second-lowest rank in Delta’s four tiers of elites. “Pretty much anyone who gets approved for a SkyMiles credit card can get priority boarding and a free checked bag.”
Mr. Wilkes, who works for a Major League Baseball team, noticed on a recent Delta flight from Baltimore to Sarasota, Fla., that more than half the passengers lined up when priority boarding was announced.
He estimates that he gets a complimentary upgrade — arguably the most important benefit of elite status — on only 15 to 20 percent of his domestic flights, compared with 40 to 50 percent several years ago.
With the newly announced changes to earning elite status with Delta, I’m officially declaring myself an “airline free agent.” Delta is the first of the legacy carriers to adopt a revenue component to earning elite status, but I’m confident they won’t be the last.
For those new to the frequent flyer game, the legacy carriers like American, Delta, US Airways, and United have typically rewarded elite status based on the number of miles each passenger flies in a calendar year. A flight from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. (about 2,300 miles) gets you much closer to elite status qualification than a flight from Baltimore to Atlanta (about 574 miles).
Many, including myself, exploited this by purchasing extremely inexpensive transcontinental flights to rack up elite qualifying miles (EQM, or MQM in Delta’s book) very quickly. Several years back, Delta even offered double MQM out of several cities, including Pittsburgh. I purchased several cheap fares from Pittsburgh to Long Beach and was a Platinum Medallion in no time.
The benefits were incredible. I was upgraded to first class on nearly every flight. The first time I missed an upgrade as a Platinum elite was because former president Jimmy Carter (and his bodyguards) were occupying most of the first class cabin. If it takes a former President to bump you from the front of the plane, you should probably take it in stride!
Though I enjoyed the benefits immensely, the process of re-qualifying each year became more and more cumbersome. I was spending discretionary income and precious time on mileage runs, but I wasn’t flying enough to justify the time and money commitment.
Now, Delta is introducing a revenue component to elite status qualification. To reach Gold status, you will still need to earn 50,000 MQM in a calendar year while also spending $5,000 on Delta-operated flights. You can waive the revenue spending requirement by charging $25,000 to a Delta co-branded credit card every year, but my spending is dedicated to clearing credit card sign up bonuses.
Besides, SkyMiles can sometimes be immensely frustrating to redeem, excluding a few specific spots like Australia and French Polynesia.
It’s time to rethink the strategy. I’m an airline free agent now, with loyalty to no carrier in particular. Will I miss first class? Maybe, but I can suck it up in coach for domestic flights. What about checked bags? Airlines co-branded credit cards offer this benefit along with priority boarding. I also avoid checking bags at all costs. How about priority security lanes? I’m signing up for Global Entry and TSA Pre Check, so that won’t be an issue.
I’m looking for the least expensive fares, bottom line.
My travel habits have also shifted. I will be traveling more on international itineraries in the future. The new goal is to accumulate miles for longhaul premium cabin redemptions. Most airlines simply don’t permit complimentary elite upgrades on international itineraries. American Airlines generously gives eight complimentary oneway systemwide upgrades to their top tier Executive Platinum members. I just can’t fly enough to justify reaching that goal!
In the end, I don’t think I will miss elite status. There are plenty of inexpensive ways to mirror most of the perks that come with it, and I can certainly handle domestic economy seats. If not, I will pay for an Economy Comfort or E+ seat with a bit more legroom or maybe fly JetBlue.
Who’s with me? Who’s throwing in the towel on airline elite status?