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How the Airlines Have Made Elite Status Even Harder to Reach

Anyone who has used airline miles to upgrade or pay for a flight knows the satisfying, equitable sensation of the transaction: You have been loyal and reliable, sticking with an airline through trips both good and bad, and an upgrade or free flight is the airline’s way of saying thanks for all your money, time and trust.

Now it just wants your money.

In summer 2016 American Airlines overhauled the terms of its AAdvantage frequent flier program to include several important changes, the best-known of which is a switch from mileage-based awards (the distance your flights covered) to fare-based awards (how much you paid). This went into effect on August 1.

While it got American a lot of press, the airline was merely following Delta, Southwest and United, which had already instituted similar cost-based mileage accrual on their own loyalty programs. (The airlines are not alone in this trend; Starbucks did something very similar last spring as well.)

The new policy obviously punishes folks for finding lower fares, so to counter this American offered the carrot for folks who have already attained elite status that each dollar spent will be worth a bit more in mileage credits the higher up you go in status. While non-elite program members will get five miles per dollar spent, Gold members will receive seven miles per airfare dollar, Platinum nine miles and Executive Platinum 11 miles. The higher you go, the more your dollar is worth. It is an odd formula, but arguably does reward loyalty to some extent.

However, the most difficult new requirement is a minimum dollar amount spent to attain elite status. In a similar requirement to its competitors, as of January 1, 2017, American will require a minimum yearly spend of $3,000 to attain Gold status, $6,000 to attain Platinum, $9,000 to attain Platinum Pro and $12,000 to attain Executive Platinum — irrespective of the mileage accrued.

In plain English, you need enough miles, plus to have spent enough money. So even if you have enough miles to earn elite status, if you bought mostly cheap fares and didn’t spend enough money, you won’t get that status.

Tax Exempt — and Not in a Good Way

Doing the math, you need 25,000 miles (or 30 flight segments) on American to attain Gold status. That is about five roundtrips between San Francisco and New York. If you got those flights for under an average of $600 each, though — no elite status.

Even if you were willing to pay $600 for a cross-country flight, there’s one brutal reality in the fine print. As Cruise Critic senior executive editor Colleen McDaniel found out, the miles accrued apply only to the actual fare, not to taxes and fees.

“Even if you pay $600, you only get credit for, say, $450,” she notes. “It’s really frustrating. I have enough miles to qualify for gold on United, but I don’t have the minimum spend for even silver.”

Be Careful When Not Booking Directly

While we have become used to having any and all air travel miles end up in our personal accounts, irrespective of whether it was booked by our employer, a travel agent or some other person, there are times when this might not happen.

The most common case is when booking through a third-party agent such as a cruise line airfare department; in these cases, the agent may book bulk fares that do not accrue points or miles.

This can also occur when booking through travel agents, particularly when they are making a reservation for a large group such as a company trip, or entire events, as when a single agent makes all “preferred pricing” bookings for a sporting event, group trip or the like.

This is a bummer, although in truth it is already the case with most hotel reward programs. Most hotels do not grant points when you don’t book the reservation directly with the hotel itself. But by following suit, it’s yet another way the airlines are making themselves less customer-friendly.

With these program changes, airlines are making it clear that they don’t care if you fill their seats; they only care how much you fill up their bank accounts. Certainly, there is a logic to this; why should folks paying less get the same benefits as those paying more? Well, one problem with this is that the airlines are “punishing” folks for buying fares at the price the airline itself has set.

Don’t Forget Expiring Miles…

The fact that most airlines make your miles expire a certain time after your last flight or award redemption is one that sticks in the craw of a lot of travelers. This is nothing new, but does make it difficult for those who don’t travel at a high frequency to maintain the rewards they’ve accumulated.

Fortunately, there are a few ways to keep miles from expiring:

– Take a flight (obviously)
– Buy miles
– Use miles for a hotel stay or car rental
– Transfer miles to another program member or donate them to charity
– Accumulate miles with a cobranded mileage credit card

…And Expiring Status

Most airline programs determine status by two time frames: the qualification year and the membership year.

The qualification year is the year in which you earn your status, which is usually within a given calendar year (January 1 to December 31).

The membership year is the year in which you are granted the benefits of the status you earned the year before. This tends to start a little bit into the year after your membership year; American, for example, has a membership year from February 1 to January 31.

Other airlines, such as United, will give you benefits immediately upon reaching a high status during your qualification, with benefits lasting through the subsequent membership year.

Once the membership year is over, though, the airline looks at the same year to determine status for the next membership year. Even if you’ve flown with an airline regularly for a decade or more, once you have a calendar year in which you don’t quite travel as much, you will find that, the following February, your high level elite status is history.

Talk about what have you done for me lately.

Have recent frequent flier program changes affected you?

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