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AirTran Challenges Southwest on Elite Perks

There's been a flurry of activity in recent weeks among the airlines' elite programs, with double elite-qualifying miles temporarily on offer from the major airlines (American, Continental, Delta, United, US Airways), and a limited-time fast-track-to-elite offer from Southwest.

Discount carrier AirTran comes late to the game, but is raising the stakes by permanently lowering the bar to attain elite status in its A+ Rewards program.

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Before the change, which took effect last week, AirTran customers were required to fly either 20 one-way flights within 90 days or 50 one-way flights within a year to reach elite status. The new policy reduces those qualification criteria by half: 10 one-way flights in 90 days or 25 one-way flights in a year.

Having achieved elite status, A+ members receive complimentary space-available upgrades, priority standby, dedicated check-in lines and security entrances, and waived fees for up to two checked bags. In addition, through its marketing partnership with Frontier, AirTran offers elite members special benefits when flying Frontier.

It could be argued that AirTran's original elite thresholds were too high to begin with, especially for an airline with limited route and partner networks. As a point of comparison, Southwest awards elite status in its program after 16 round-trips within a 12-month period. So halving the criteria makes elite status attainable for significantly more AirTran customers, and more readily attainable than it would be in Southwest's program.

And unlike Southwest's limited package of benefits for elite travelers, AirTran's features the one perk most prospective elite flyers consider the key reason to attain status in the first place: upgrades.

This puts Southwest in the awkward position of requiring significantly more flights to earn significantly fewer elite benefits. If Southwest expects to make further inroads in the business-travel market, that's a value disconnect they will have to address, and soon.

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