Thursday, August 09, 2012

Going For The Gold

When it comes to elite status fliers, airlines now have about as much interest in silver as China does when it comes to their Olympic athletes. With Airlines, Silver Status Loses Luster (WSJ-sub req):

Airlines have cut and crimped perks awarded to the silver-level frequent fliers—the lowest and most populous tier of elite status, which typically requires 25,000 flying miles a year.

On Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, silver elites purchase premium coach seats with extra legroom if they want to reserve them before check-in, a perk that used to be free. American Airlines will give its lowest elite tier free access to new extra-legroom seats at the front of its coach cabins through next year, then they must pay. Both Delta and United stopped giving silver-level customers a free second checked bag in March. Delta and Alaska Airlines don't give lowest-level elite members access to priority security lines.

The loss of perks comes as nabbing complimentary domestic upgrades has gotten harder. One factor: Airlines are selling more upgrades to fee-paying fliers rather than giving them to low-tier elites.

Airline executives and frequent-flier program consultants say at most big carriers, 6% to 10% of customers have elite status. The silver level is the biggest tier, airlines confirm, and has been growing for several reasons. Airline mergers have concentrated the pool of high-status travelers while available seats have been reduced. And credit-card deals giving travelers bonuses of "elite-qualifying" miles have also swelled the status ranks. A US Airways Premier World MasterCard, for example, gives 10,000 elite-qualifying miles once the holder spends $25,000 in a year—a big bonus that makes reaching silver status a lot easier.

Perks like priority boarding and priority security lines can now be obtained by using the right airline-sanctioned credit card or by paying a fee to the airline. That has left some priority lines longer than regular lines, jammed early boarding with lots of passengers and diminished the exclusivity of elite status. If everyone is special, no one is special.

I’m surprised that only 6%-10% of flier have status. It seems like on some flights more than half the passengers have “priority boarding” (which means less and less as more and more qualify for it). There was a time when silver could occasional get you upgrade. Now, even with higher statuses the upgrades are harder and harder to come by.

The reality is that if you want to get any real travel benefits from elite status today, you’ve got to reach beyond silver. Go gold or go home.