Lewis is a lifetime “gold”-level elite on American Airlines, which he manages to get upgraded to platinum status because he still travels frequently. But he says that his gold status is almost meaningless, because American has swelled the ranks of its elites by making it too easy to reach that level. As a result, snagging an upgrade is nearly impossible, because there are too many other golds competing for a business-class seat.
Even so, platinum status is barely enough to keep him loyal. If he slipped back to gold for some reason, he says, he’d be out the door, “lifetime status or not.”
For some, even lifetime platinum status doesn’t cut it. Don Domina, a retired sales vice president for a construction equipment manufacturer in St. Louis, was awarded lifetime platinum status on American Airlines, but he has still stopped giving his business to the airline, in part because he’s retired and in part because the benefits aren’t what he’d been led to believe they were when he became a frequent flier on American. “I did get a call from American wondering where I had gone,” he said, adding, “There is no love.”
The solution? Cut benefits so that the most deserving frequent fliers get the special treatment they deserve. United tried to do that when it merged its loyalty program with Continental’s, and Delta has announced similar changes starting next year, when it plans to tie its elite levels with the amount of money passengers spend. But that provokes a different kind of backlash.
Jonathan Yarmis, a technology analyst based in New York, is a United Million Miler and a lifetime gold-level flier. Though he gets upgraded from time to time because of his status, he says that scoring one of the better seats is “rare.” I asked him whether he still felt appreciated after the recent changes. Not really, he said. Unless you’re at the top of the elite-level ladder, “you’re just not worth that much.”
It doesn’t seem to matter if an airline keeps its elite levels easy to maintain for Million Milers or, for that matter, the mileage opportunists who manage to collect rewards without darkening the door of an aircraft; or if the airline starts to cut its programs in order to make its top-tier customers happy. Too many loyal travelers say that they feel burned.
Croswell, who as a United Airlines 1K member in 1996 was once asked to give up the first-class seat from London to Washington that he’d been upgraded to for a Million Miler, and gladly did it because he says he knew that one day “my time would come” to be recognized, is done playing the loyalty game.
“I’m still flying,” he says. “But not on United.”
E-mail Christopher Elliott at email@example.com.