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Elite Status Is Losing Altitude

Not so long ago, elite status was to frequent flyers what Mount Everest is to Alpine climbers: the ultimate challenge and the only goal truly worth achieving.

The analogy is an imperfect one, of course. Whereas the lure of Everest’s summit is famously ineffable— just because it’s there—the reasons to reach elite status are palpable: upgrades, priority check-in and boarding, and other perks that go a long way toward softening the hard edges of travel.

While the published perks accorded to elite members haven’t changed, their availability has. As these changes are not for the better, many frequent flyers are now asking the difficult question: Is elite status still worth striving for?

Elite status is easier to attain

In most large programs, the entry-level elite tier is attained after flying 25,000 elite-qualifying miles during a calendar year, with higher levels of elite status and more robust perks awarded at 50,000 and 75,000 miles. Elite-qualifying miles—so called to differentiate them from award miles—are generally awarded for flights on the airline that hosts the program in question and for flights on a select few preferred airline partners.

Or it used to be a select few partners. The lists of preferred partners have grown significantly in recent years, as the largest airlines have networked their operations and loyalty programs into global alliances.

The Star Alliance, for example, has expanded to include 16 airlines. A member of United’s Mileage Plus program earns miles toward elite status for flights on United and on any of the other 15 Star carriers. Several other U.S. airlines participate in the other global alliances, SkyTeam and Oneworld, which operate similarly.

The growth of global alliances has been a double-edged sword for those who aspire to elite status. Most travelers welcome the additional opportunities to reach elite status, but as status has become easier to attain, benefits have become more difficult to obtain.

And in particular jeopardy, unfortunately, is the benefit which most elites value most: upgrades.

It’s better up front

Priority boarding, mileage bonuses, and generally more responsive customer service are nice. But the principal allure of elite status for most is upgrades to first class. The extra smidgen of comfort afforded by first-class seats’ extra inches of leg and shoulder room has compelled travelers for years to sacrifice price and convenience in order to reach elite thresholds by concentrating their flying on a single carrier.

Those elite upgrades are offered on a space-available basis, of course. And increasingly the space isn’t available, much to the frustration of legions of consumers who have played by the airlines’ rules to achieve elite status.

First-class seats for would-be upgraders are fewer and farther between for a couple of reasons. First, the airlines have scaled back premium seating on their full-sized jets. Compounding that decrease, the industry is trending toward the use of smaller regional jets (RJs), which are more efficient on less traveled routes but typically have no first-class cabin. So, on the supply side, there are simply fewer first-class seats in circulation.

On the demand side, Delta’s recent SimpliFares initiative has resulted in widespread lowering of domestic first-class fares, making a seat up front a real option for some travelers who previously rejected premium pricing as a laughably bad value. The more first-class seats the airlines can sell, the fewer there are available as upgrades for loyalty program members.

The combination of fewer seats and more demand makes for a troubling disconnect for current and aspiring elite travelers; more elites will be chasing after fewer first-class seats.

Muddy waters, cloudy skies

The airlines have no easy way to fix this problem. With bankruptcy an ever-present prospect, the airlines cannot justify the costs of adding first-class seats. Nor can they be expected to give away more upgrades at the expense of paying passengers because, in the short term, that policy would amount to financial suicide.

On the other hand, due to some of the very same economic pressures, the airlines cannot afford to lose the business of their best customers. Since elite programs are the cornerstone of maintaining those highly profitable relationships, airlines are painfully aware of the need to maintain upgrade benefits or—equally problematic—replace them with benefits of comparable value.

For travelers, the challenge is to make sense of the devaluation. Given that elite status is both easier to attain and less valuable, is achieving elite status still a worthwhile goal?

Perhaps. But the effort is only valuable if travelers are prepared to downgrade their expectations.

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