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:
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.
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.
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