Elite No More in 2017

By Robert McGarvey


It’s not about the money.  But I assure you 2017 will end without me being elite in any airline program.

The numbers just don’t add up anymore.

We all know that this is the year when all the big carriers have joined in imposing a minimum spend to qualify for elite status, at any level.  On American, that’s $3000 for entry level gold, $6000 for Platinum. $9000 for Platinum Pro. And $12,000 for Executive Platinum One World.

The other big US carriers – United and Delta – have similar requirements, although Delta has a $15,000 minimum spend for its top status.

Color me uninterested.

Definitely money is not the obstacle. Often I hear people saying that the new spend requirements will deter travelers from pursuing elite status.  I don’t believe it.

There are more profound reasons for declining interest.

Hitting the lowest dollar targets is easy. Round trip to EWR from where I live, PHX, runs around $500.  One to  Reagan Airport will run around the same.  Figure a couple trips for me this year to EWR, at least one to DC, probably a few to Florida.  Add in flights to Las Vegas – who knows how many but in some years a lot – and some to DFW and, really, there are no hurdles to elite status on my behalf.

Neither dollars nor miles.

But it would require loyalty to a single carrier and I don’t see the point.

Partly it’s because I now live in Phoenix where no carrier truly dominates.  The numbers put American in the lead but Southwest nips at its heels and, often, there are good reasons (price and convenience) to prefer Southwest. Recently I’ve flown American, Southwest, United, Delta and it’s all the same to me.

If I still lived in Jersey City, where I lived for most of this century, I would be all in with United because I only flew from Newark – in eight years, not once from JFK or Laguardia – and that meant United. (Continental before the merger.)  Word of advice: if where you live puts you in that kind of near monopoly, earn elite status because very probably it’s inescapable.  

But a lot of towns are like Phoenix – it’s just as convenient to fly one carrier as another and in those cases suddenly elite status loses its attraction.  Give me the choice and I will opt for the ability to pick the best carrier for each flight, rather than accumulating miles in pursuit of a goal of becoming elite.

That’s because elite status – at all but the very highest levels – brings no real benefits that I don’t already have.  Low level, under $100 annual fee American and United credit cards give me free bag check and priority boarding.

Those of course are two of the prime perks of low level elite status.

Southwest sells priority boarding.

Also included in low level are eligibility are upgrades – and know the likelihood of getting one approaches nil.

A low level elite gets a 40% mileage bonus that I don’t get – but since I buy tickets with the airline cards I get my own bonus anyway.

An elite gets better seat selection – that is fact and can be a real plus in economy. But often I can buy those same seats for a few dollars extra, so maybe that benefit cancels out.

Do you see why elite status has lost its appeal to me?

Several friends have the highest status and that is a different world.  They get real perks – upgrades, often; upgrades for companions; 120% mileage bonus; 3 free bags checked; complimentary same day flight changes; a genuinely exclusive service desk; guaranteed availability in the main cabin; and a lot more, some of it genuinely useful.

Alas, I don’t fly that much to qualify for super elite (100,000 miles on American, plus that $12,000 which often is the easier part). But if you believe you will – without going very far out of your way – go for it. The perks are sweet.

But for the rest of us, the question is: is elite status worth breaking a sweat to earn? And my answer is, nah.  Just don’t bother.

Especially not for the lower levels.

Buy a credit card associated with the airlines you will fly most often, get the priority boarding (also free bag check if you use it), and then exercise total freedom to book the flight that works best for you.

Airlines have forced this reality on us, by curtailing the perks that matter (upgrades in particular, although award tickets to prime destinations are also said by many to be harder to score).  As for the rest of the perks, they can be gotten in other ways.

And that’s exactly what I plan to do in 2017.

2 thoughts on “Elite No More in 2017”

  1. I have Diamond Elite (highest) with Delta and it is not worth the effort. First, the only time you usually get an upgrade is on short trips to regional airports (i.e., LaGuardia to Richmond). Recently I was on a San Francisco to JFK flight and there were seven unsold seats in first class and they, not to my knowledge, were not filled (looked into the cabin and saw the vacancies during the fight). Last week I was on a flight from JFK to Detroit and I was sitting immediately behind a vacant first class seat. Currently I am in Asia and I wanted to use frequent fly miles for a ticket. Instead of one connecting flight, the only frequent fly tickets available required three connecting flights lasting anywhere from 36 to 44 hours. A “normal” one connection flight is 23 to 25 hours. I used to automatically get premium economy for free when I purchased the ticket. Now you have to wait until the airline decides they want to give it to you, and then maybe only a few days before the flight, when the airlines will decide I can have it. For the Asian trip I mentioned above, not only did I have to purchase a ticket for a shorter flight, but it cost me over $500 extra to purchase the premium economy (Delta calls it Comfort +). Because of these situations, there is ZERO reasons to try for any level status. Now, it’s time and cost. All of the legacy airlines give comparable service so there is no need to choose for comfort. On international flights, foreign carriers probably give better service for the same or slightly lower cost. I would even pay slightly more just for the better service. Bye, bye elite status.

  2. With Delta you can meet the spend requirement by spending $25k on the Delta AMEX credit card during the calendar year (on anything).

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