The Ever Changing Airlines’ Goal Posts for Elites


By Robert McGarvey


Imagine you are playing a football game, you score a touchdown, and when next the ball is yours it seems the goal posts are 40 yards farther away.

Don’t imagine, experience a similar reality with airline loyalty programs.

Skift even ran with the analogy in its headline about United’s most recent changes: “United Airlines Moves the Goal Post for Earning Top-Tier Elite Status.”  

For some years, I’ve chided airline loyalty programs as essentially shell games, where the passenger mainly loses. That’s why I’ve suggested sidestepping the programs and getting the essential perks at no extra cost when using an airline branded credit card.  (I carry two and mull picking up a third.)

The latest slap in the face from United reminds me why I’ve decided not to play that game. For the 2019 program year, earning United top tier 1K status will require a $15,000 spend, up from the current $12,000. The mileage required remains the same at 100,000.

In making that move United is matching Delta. American is the last of the big three that retains a $12,000 spend for its executive platinum status.

Airlines are feeling the pain of rising crude oil costs – and at least some experts believe crude prices will double in the next year.  For airlines that’s a world of hurt on profits and those pains will be leveled on passengers, both elite and non elite.

But the maddening thing about the changing mileage and spend goal posts is that even the most loyal passengers feel the pains.

It’s arguable that the most loyal always feel the most pain precisely because of that loyalty which keeps them locked into a particular loyalty program and once you start playing the game you get hooked.

Even when it’s a game you can’t win.

At, Chris McGinnis hypothesized that a reason United made this move – aside from the simple desire to match Delta – is that the group of qualifying flyers may have become “too large.”

He quoted Luc Bondar, head the MileagePlus program, as saying that United made the change because it wanted to be sure  “the value promise we promise to elite level members is one that we can deliver.”

One way to get there is to winnow the pack.

United also is fiddling with the upgrades earned by elites. It said on its website: “Currently, Premier members earn two Regional Premier Upgrades for every 25,000 PQM or 30 PQS and two Global Premier Upgrades for every 50,000 PQM or 60 PQS after reaching Premier 1K status. In 2019, Premier members will earn one Global Premier Upgrade for every 25,000 PQM or 30 PQS after reaching Premier 1K status, and will no longer earn additional Regional Premier Upgrades.”

Noted McGinnis about this change: “That’s good news for those who travel a lot internationally, but not so good for those who like to use regional upgrades to bump up to first from the back of the plane on domestic flights.”

Add it up and what do elites get? Less and less.  That is fact. Loyalty used to deliver a steady stream of upgraded seats and of course a sprinkling of free flights bought for miles.  I have flow to Rome, Berlin, many more places – highly desirable – using miles as my currency.

But the common complaint I hear today is that just are no available award flights on the routes travelers honestly want.

And seat upgrades are harder and harder to come by, mainly because airlines have decided to monetize those seats – selling them, sometimes at bargain prices, shortly before boarding.  

Puzzled about what’s going on here, really? At AirlineGeeks, contributor Thomas Pallini noted, “Even though they don’t realize it, airlines are not rewarding loyal travelers, they’re punishing regular travelers.”

Low level elite status increasingly resembles flying with no status perhaps 10 years ago.

That is why I suggest skipping loyalty and buying a credit card that delivers the perks you want such as early boarding and free checked bag.  

Fair enough, airlines want to reward their most profitable passengers.

For the rest of us what makes sense is stepping outside the system.

I’ll admit, at first it is disorienting to arrive at an airport without elite status.  But you get the hang of it, you do.

By now I’m content with my lot.

Are you?



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