Airline Elite Status: On the Decline?

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elite airline statusThis post originally appeared on MainStreet.

As the year-end approaches, hardened travelers start flying so-called mileage runs, trips – essentially to nowhere – simply to rack up miles that qualify the flyer for airline elite status, which means early boarding, better seat selection, free bag check, occasional upgrades to business or first class and occasional free flights.

And yet, lately, louder voices are heard dissing elite status.

What’s not to like about the perks? The perks aren’t in question but, nowadays, many flyers are questioning the value of elite status, mainly because airlines have relentlessly chipped away at the privileges, by selling them à la carte or giving them away in bundled offers.

Muttered New York-based Aussie comedian Jim Dailakis, “I sometimes wonder if all the trouble of reaching elite status was worth it. Nowadays, airline based credit cards offer the same perks.”

Case in point: The U.S. Airways Dividend Miles card via Barclays Bank. Pay an $89 annual fee and you get priority Zone 2 boarding, 2x miles on every US Airways purchase (1x on purchases elsewhere), one free entry pass to the U.S. Airways airport club, and two annual companion tickets on flights at $99 apiece. Plus, there’s 30,000 bonus miles just for signing up.

The alternative is qualifying for entry-level silver status by flying 25,000 miles – but that only delivers early boarding and one free checked bag. The other goodies – the free club pass, and all the miles earned on non flight purchases – are yours only with the credit card.

Or pay $989 to U.S. Airways and buy up to silver status…although exactly how that counts as smart shopping is difficult to say when the credit card delivers more for less.

Read that again: entry level elite status (silver at 25k miles on United, also gold at 50K) is pretty much useless in terms of getting those coveted upgrades that bump a traveler from coach into business class. Getting that treat generally takes Platinum (75k miles) or, even better, 1K (100,000 miles) and, always remember, upgrades are awarded in a ruthless Darwinism where the best customers on a flight get the best seats, with little leftover for lowly silvers.

That is why Gabriella Ribeiro Truman, president of travel firm TruMarketing who now is on the cusp of winning American Airlines Million Miler status, sighed that “in the end I think it doesn’t really matter.” She explained that to really see perks she still needs to qualify at Platinum level (50k miles) or, to really count on receiving upgrades, Executive Platinum (100k miles).

Remember this: for as little as $9 priority boarding can be bought à la carte on most domestic airlines. A few extra dollars will buy a better seat. Baggage can be checked for a fee, typically $25. At today’s airlines, just about everything is for sale and that is unlikely to change. Proof is that at last week’s earnings call, United’s chief revenue officer struck up the carrier’s profit jump to growth in “ancillary revenues per passenger” – and those are the little add on charges for boarding sooner, checking a bag, and the like.

With the cash register’s ringing, don’t expect airlines to stop monetizing perks they otherwise would simply give away. And that throws elite status – especially at the entry levels – into deeper questioning.

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