For airline marketers, the handling of lapsed elite loyalty-program members is a highly sensitive issue.
A traveler who has attained elite status in a program has demonstrated not only his loyalty during the period in question, but his potential for loyalty (and the revenue that comes with it) in the future. So when he falls short of re-qualifying for elite status, kicking him to the side of the road is not a profit-maximizing strategy.
In the past, American has handled lapsed elites in one of three ways. In some cases, if the member came close to qualifying, the airline might just ignore the shortfall and grant him status. In other cases, where the gap was too wide, the airline sometimes offered the member the opportunity to buy back his lost status. And if all else failed, the member might be granted a lower level of elite status.
The measures were designed to either keep program members at their current elite levels, or take the sting out of being precipitously downgraded to non-elite status.
But this week, American sent an email to some current AAdvantage elites that included the following: "Next year, regardless of your current status, your elite status for the next membership year will be based on your elite qualifying activity in 2013." In other words, no more soft landings.
In response to my query, an American spokesperson had this to say about the change:
We are constantly evaluating our programs to ensure they offer the best value to our customers. Most importantly, we want to ensure that we protect the value of the elite program and its award-winning benefits. By no longer granting earning exceptions through soft landings, we are aligning elite travel benefits with those who have truly earned their benefits. Yesterday we emailed our elite members who previously received a soft landing that weren't on track to keep their current status, to confirm our earning policy moving forward, and to ensure our elites have adequate time to re-qualify for elite status.
Not very enlightening. Most likely, the change is being made to prevent an unsupportable swelling of the elite ranks when the AAdvantage program is merged with US Airways' Dividend Miles program. There are only so many elite perks to go around, especially if the post-merger American adopts US Airways' more liberal upgrade policies. And the more members there are, the harder will those perks be to come by.
If there is a good reason—from the standpoints both of American and its customers—for ending the soft landings, that's it.
Hard landings may be uncomfortable, but they're the price to be paid for more upgrade opportunities.
Reader Reality Check
Are hard landings a reasonable response to the upcoming American-US Airways merger?
This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.