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Can I Switch Airlines While Maintaining My Elite Status?

Dear Tim,

I was looking for some advice on changing frequent flyer programs within the SkyTeam group. I travel equally between Northwest, Continental, Delta, and Alaska, yet Continental only grants 100 percent credit for flights booked on its Web page or high-price fares. I would easily attain platinum status, yet find myself as a solid silver. Is there any way to switch to Northwest while maintaining my elite status?

Andrew B.

Dear Andrew,

Global airline alliances like SkyTeam, Star, and oneworld can be boons to frequent travelers, expanding the universe of possibilities for earning and redeeming miles, and making elite status both more attainable and more rewarding. But the alliances have also complicated decision-making processes. That’s especially true in the case of SkyTeam, which has three major U.S. carriers on its partner roster. (The Star Alliance includes two U.S. carriers, United and US Airways. The oneworld group has only American.)

Airlines that participate in the same alliance typically adopt similar policies regarding mileage earning and elite qualification, specifically in order to present a “united front” to consumers and minimize competition among the airline partners. But, as you’ve discovered, Continental has taken a somewhat more restrictive approach to its elite-qualifying policies than co-SkyTeam members Delta and Northwest. This difference in approaches inevitably leads to the questions: Would Continental OnePass members be better served by the programs of Delta or Northwest? And if a change is in order, is there a way to transfer one’s miles and status from Continental’s program to the new one?

While it’s become common to refer to airline alliances as virtual mergers, in reality they fall far short of that. And the situation with partner frequent flyer programs reinforces that fact. No matter how intimate the relationship among Continental, Delta, and Northwest may be, it doesn’t allow for the wholesale transfer of miles from one airline’s program to another’s.

What about simply transferring elite status? There is no formal mechanism for switching elite status between airlines. There is, however, the not-so-secret practice of elite-matching: some airlines will, on a request basis, grant a traveler elite status based on his having achieved similar status in the program of another (usually competitive) airline. While you might convince American or United to match your Continental elite status, I’d bet against your persuading Delta or Northwest to do the same. That’s because, as co-participants in SkyTeam, there’s at least an implicit agreement not to poach each other’s best customers.

The good news is that elite status is awarded based on the number of elite-qualifying miles earned during a calendar year. And the beginning of a new calendar year is just a few weeks away.

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