It’s commonplace to read that airlines will bend over backward for their most loyal customers. There was in fact an article in the NYT this week arguing just that point. But if you waver in your loyalty in any way, or for any reason, you’ll likely see that bending-over-backward ending really quickly. Timely, then, that reader J.R. writes in with a tale of frustration with the policies and practices of frequent flier program elite membership. He wrote to US Airways:

I have been Chairman’s [Preferred, the top tier of elite status on US Airways] for many years. My wife is expecting our first during the fourth quarter and this will stop my travel for a period of about 3-4 months. I am hoping to retain Chairman’s status but am afraid that with the lack of 4th quarter travel, I will come short. Is
it possible to have this waived to continue my status which I have held for many years due to this circumstance? Thank you for the consideration.

Here is the airline’s response:

Mr. ******,
Thank you for contacting US Airways.
We can certainly understand your desire to maintain your status at this level. We do not make exceptions to Preferred levels in fairness to
those who have worked hard to reach the requirements. We encourage you to do all possible to meet the Preferred criteria before the end of the qualification year on December 31st.
We do allow former Chairman’s Preferred members to cover the difference in their Preferred mileage and segments with a purchase option, however, since you are already a Chairman’s Member, you would have to wait until your current Chairman’s membership expires and at that point we would be able to advise the fee to retain your status.
Thank you for your continued patronage of US Airways.
Molly H.
Club Services

By the book, the airline is absolutely right. He’s not meeting the required mileage cutoff for Chairman’s membership. So he doesn’t get it.

Looking forward, though, they’ve shot themselves in the foot with this customer, a top-tier, 100,000-miles-per-year elite flier for 8 years. As J.R. writes, the lack of flexibility feels like betrayal:

Never felt that I got kicked so hard in the teeth after all the revenue I gave them for so long. If they had someone with an MBA or basic business sense enough to do a forward looking cost-benefit analysis, they would likely see things differently. As it turns out, I will be looking for another airline.

So what’s an airline to do? Bend the rules for big money fliers and keep to-the-book to the run-of-the-mill traveler? Doesn’t seem fair to the lower-tier traveler.

The real solution is to keep some flexibility in an elite scheme. One way to ensure that, in my opinion, is multi-year membership. Lufthansa does this: Top-tier “HON Circle” membership in their Miles & More program is measured based on 600,000 miles (!) earned over two years. Low earnings in one year can be made up in the second.

Alternatively, much like “rollover minutes” on wireless plans, airlines could allow miles over a tier cutoff to go toward the next year. (Delta recently introduced this.) It may mean more top-tier elites than now, which could mean a battle for upgrades. But recognizing longevity of loyalty, and not just short-term loyalty, could still pay off for the airline.

But what do you think? Does J.R. deserve some flexibility after eight years of loyalty? Is US Airways being stupid, or fair, in denying his request? What’s the best way to keep rewarding long-term loyalty without harming your business?

Take the poll, and hit the comments.

Should airlines give longtime loyal customers a break if they fall just short of their status cutoff?

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15 Responses to “Poll: Should airlines give longtime loyalists a chance to keep their status?”

  1. KT Says:

    poor bugger spent all that time on US Airways…deserves a medal…you can do better with another airline….While you have the status call another airline up to see of they will honour your status on their airline.No need to mention your not flying in the last quarter. I have heard of this working. Would be a smooth transition.

  2. Ryan Says:

    In this circumstance, I think that it is better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission

    E-mailing the airline and telling them that you will not be flying well in advance of the expiration of your status pretty much guarantees they will say no, regardless of the situation. The airlines are hurting (as usual) and need to get every last drop of revenue that they can. Telling one of their best fliers to “take the rest of the year off” is not in their best interests, so if course they will say no.

    However, e-mailing them next year after you missed the status, they might be forgiving. Only at that point will they really be forward thinking enough to “let you slide for a year” depending on how much you missed by.

  3. mre Says:

    I voted yes, but I think the devil is in the details. I could see this being abused. I can see things from the airlines’ point of view.

  4. Antonio Says:

    This may have worked in the past when people weren’t able to post stuff on the internet to a huge audience. But in this day and age, they have to stick to the rules, otherwise once it leaks out that it worked for one person tons of others would try to abuse it.

    I don’t know about other airlines, but United does have some long-term loyalty benefits with their Million Miles and Beyond awards:
    http://www.united.com/page/article/0,5046,52380,00.html

    Being second to top tier is still pretty good as well. Plus, US Airways’ fees for buying status seem pretty resonable:
    http://www.usairways.com/awa/content/dividendmiles/preferred/buy-up-to-preferred.aspx

  5. John Says:

    When will the legacy airlines learn. It is not about how much someone flies with them but what they spent on the airline. I think it is perfectly reasonable for someone who spent $25k worth of tickets this year but only flew 20k miles should have more status then someone who bought the cheapest tickets possible for a total of $15k but ended up flying 25k miles. At the moment it is based on miles flown when in fact the bottom line the airline should be concerned with is amount paid. It is silly to keep holding on to a programme based on miles in this day and age.

  6. S A Says:

    @John,

    Two thoughts:

    1) How about a hybrid? Earn status via miles flown or dollars spent? You flew 100K miles with us? You get status. You spent $25K with us? You get the same status. That way you reward frequency of business as well as big-ticket business.

    2) If it’s based on $$$, instead of miles, the same principle could still apply. Let’s say the cutoff is $25,000 for top tier status. What if the guy who wrote the letter to USAirways spent >$25K for 10 years, and then fell short by $1K because he took a short break from travel. If you’re the airline, do you cut him slack, or tell him to piss off and accept lower-tier status? Changing it from miles to cash doesn’t make the problem of status renewal go away.

  7. Steve Kalman Says:

    I’m one of those “former status” who had a desk job for a few years and is now back in coach. The year I lost 100K status I flew 89K. No option to buy up. Not a big deal, since the next few years averaged only 20K.

    The good news about not having status is that I got to choose flights based on schedule. I sampled lots of other airlines. Two favorites: United for Economy Plus and Continental because I live near EWR. (And, I have an Amex Platinum, so I get lounge access).

    I flew first class to Oslo on CO a few months ago using miles (from Amex). Chief attendant (purser?) came around to all in 1st and asked if anyone had gold or better on another airline. My seatmate had SAS, so he filled out a form and got instant Gold on Co. Seems like a smart move.

    As for me, with the downsizing I’m back to traveling. Will do 40K this year and about 80K next. With CO joining the alliance, I’ll be on both CO and UA planes.

    By the way, CO does do some cost/mileage reckoning. My company just bought me a ticket to LHR at a steep discount. I only get 50% mileage credit. When they bought FRA round trip at the last minute in July the price was staggering. Still, only exact miles. Seems that they should play both ways.

  8. IMH Says:

    I think your own suggestions are on the right lines: rollover miles and more flexibility over qualification periods both have merits. A “soft landing” can also help both parties — AA and bmi status members, and LH Senators as well I believe, only drop one level if they fail to requalify. That makes staying with the airline more attractive and getting back up to a higher status level a little easier.

  9. Sean Says:

    Wait, people still fly US Air??

  10. Ken Says:

    Alaska Airlines did this for me at the MVP level. I was about 700 mile short and they extended me another year this last January.

  11. Instant in-flight status match? Continental hustling for upper-tier elites | Upgrade: Travel Better Says:

    [...] elitesPosted by: Mark Ashley In the comments thread of a previous post, Steve Kalman offered this anecdote: I flew first class to Oslo on [Continental] a few months ago using miles (from Amex). Chief [...]

  12. Brian Says:

    I agree with KT and Ryan. What a terrible airline to have to build up your miles. In my experience with DL, NW, and LH, they will drop you down to the next lower tier (although LH takes the cake with their laughable offer – “We will be happy to reinstate your Senator status for 2000 euro”). If you beg for forgiveness after losing your status, due to unforeseen circumstances or whatever, I think you have a better chance of the airline taking pity on you rather than trying to get pity in advance. Some airline and hotel programs will have a “challenge” offer for these circumstances i.e. fly 25K miles in the next 3 months and we’ll give you back your old status.

    I don’t know what kind of flying JR does, but if he is US-based like me and flies mostly international, I would recommend accruing Star Alliance miles on LH Miles and More. It is a wonderful program and they give you Star Silver at 35K (Frequent Traveller) and Star Gold (Senator) at 100K miles. The best part is that you get to keep the status for 2 years, and Senators get cool priveleges like discount award tickets for spouses and small children as well as overdrawing your account if you’re a bit short. The downside is that there are no “automatic upgrades” on United or US Airways for domestic travel, but you can use the lounge and I have about a 50% success rate convincing United employees to seat me in Economy Plus by flashing my Senator card.

  13. bargaintravel (bargaintravel) Says:

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  14. Chris Says:

    A challenge program to regain status sounds in order here. As soon as I read the response, I knew he would take his business elsewhere. An escalation up the path beyond the front line clerk sounds in order here.

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