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Thinking elite thoughts

Year-end reflections on elite status, upgrades, and the definition(s) of “mile”

In almost all frequent travel programs, members earn elite status based on their qualifying activity during a calendar year, January through December. So come year?s end, the thoughts of many frequent flyers turn to elite-related matters. For many, the most pressing issue is how to earn the remaining miles, points, or segments needed to qualify for elite status next year, or how to get from their current level to the next highest tier.

We covered some of the how-to?s in another article last year at this time. This year, we?ll concentrate on miscellaneous other aspects of attaining and using elite status, beginning with the recurring ?why bother? question.

True Tales of Elite

If you think the Holy Grail of the mileage quest is a free ticket, think again. When it comes to travel and frequent flyer programs, elite can?t be beat. Here are a couple of personal anecdotes to make the point.

Prior to a recent flight from Boston to Los Angeles, an agent said something about ?making my trip a little more comfortable? as he was checking me in. I didn?t give it much thought at the time, but when boarding began, I looked at my boarding pass to determine my seat and row and discovered he had given me a seat in first class.

Checking in for another recent transcontinental flight?this one between Los Angeles and Hartford, and delayed by mechanical problems?I happened to mention to the agent that I had once worked for the airlines, and understood how stressful it was to manage a flight delay. Five minutes later, the same agent approached me in the waiting area and replaced my original economy-class boarding pass with a first-class one. The reason was: ?You were so helpful when we were having a problem.?

And on a different note, several months ago I had to cancel the second leg of a three-leg trip. It was a last-minute change, and by the time I called the airline?s reservations number, the flight in question had already departed. That, in conjunction with the fact that the ticket was a discounted, restricted one, should have guaranteed a ?Sorry, no refund? result. But in fact, the reservations agent added a note to the booking authorizing a refund for the missed flight.

To be sure, for every air-travel ?point of light,? there are several service shortfalls I could mention. But the fact that I can cite three positive, and quite unexpected, experiences over the past year is notable, as is the reason for them.

The single factor common to all three events is my status with the airline concerned; I?m a Gold member of its frequent flyer program. And it is just such unpublished extras that can make elite worth attaining.

Let?s be clear. There is no written policy that elite members get upgraded under the circumstances I?ve described. Nor is it a standard elite benefit that non-refundable tickets will be refunded. Rather, we can infer that there is an internal directive to give elite members extra consideration where possible and appropriate.

One, Two, Three… Upgrade

Since we?re on the subject of discretionary upgrades (i.e., upgrades received in exchange for neither cash nor miles, typically at check-in), it?s probably worthwhile looking at the total picture. While I believe my elite status was a necessary condition for the above-mentioned upgrades, it was not a sufficient condition. Two additional conditions obtained as well:

  1. Appearance. I typically travel dressed in business attire (sports jacket and pressed slacks at a minimum) because I?ve found that the clothes I wear arrive in better condition than the clothes I pack. Does it matter? Absolutely. All things being equal, airline personnel are much more likely to bump me up if I?m dressed for the boardroom than if I?m dressed for the beach.
  2. Attitude. Yes, sometimes the insufferable blowhard gets his way, bullying into the first-class cabin through sheer force of will. But I can tell you from personal experience that sometimes the nice guy gets there too, without the bullying. I don?t request, much less demand, upgrades. And yet I still occasionally get them. Elite status and a presentable appearance help. But you must also make an impression (positive, obviously) on the check-in agent. He or she will process as many as 100 passengers per flight, and you have to somehow remain top-of-mind.

Even with all of the above three conditions in place, you?re not likely to be upgraded. But you will have increased your odds considerably.

A Mile by any other Name

When navigating the world of frequent flyer programs, and particularly when thinking elite thoughts, it helps to be conversant with the all-important unit of measurement, the mile. A mile is a mile is a mile? Not quite. Remember that the mile is brought to you by the same folks who brought you the mind-numbing complexity of airline pricing. So it should come as no great surprise that the humble mile can be parsed more ways than a run-on sentence. The following are some definitions:

  • Flight miles (a.k.a. base miles or paid miles) are the miles actually flown, the distance between Point A and Point B.
  • Minimum miles are the fewest miles awarded by a program for a flight. In most programs, you earn 500 miles for anything up to and including a 500-mile flight, so 500 miles is the minimum.

    Most of the other species of miles mentioned below are either equal to, or a percentage of, flight miles or minimum miles.

  • Qualifying miles (or elite-qualifying miles) are the miles that count toward attaining elite status. It used to be simple: Elite-qualifying miles were earned for flights on the airline hosting the frequent flyer program. For instance, if you were an AAdvantage member, only miles flown on American counted toward elite qualification. SkyMiles members qualified on the basis of their Delta flights, Mileage Plus members for United flights, and so on.

    In the current alliance-driven environment, members of the larger programs can count on elite miles not only from the program?s host airline, but also from other airlines co-participating in the same alliance. So, for example, if you?re a member of Delta?s SkyMiles program, flights on AeroMexico, Air France, Korean, and other airlines in the SkyTeam global alliance all count toward elite status in Delta?s program. (For more on alliances, see the three-part article at

    In most cases, qualifying miles are equal to flight miles or minimum miles. No bonuses apply.

  • Class of service bonus miles are the extra miles earned for flying business or first class, normally 25 and 50 percent of either flight or minimum miles, whichever is greater.
  • Elite bonus miles are the extra miles accorded elite members by virtue of their elevated status. Typically, a first-tier elite member earns an additional 25 percent of the flown miles for any trip on an airline whose miles normally count toward elite qualification. And higher tier members earn greater bonuses.
  • And finally, promotion or route bonus miles are the extra miles the airlines offer as enticements to fill seats on underperforming routes or during soft travel periods, or to promote new services. You see these limited-time offers cast in both percentage terms (e.g., ?Earn double miles for…?) and absolute terms (e.g., ?5,000 bonus miles when you fly…?).

    To illustrate how to use the different types of mile, let?s suppose you flew 2,000 actual miles on the airline that hosts your program. Because you purchased a first-class ticket, you also earned a 50 percent class-of-service bonus. Let?s also say you?re a Gold member of your airline?s program, and therefore entitled to a 25 percent elite bonus. And, the airline was offering double miles at the time you traveled. Here?s the math:

    A Actual Miles 2,000 Distance Flown
    B Class-of-Service Bonus 1,000 (A x 50%)
    C Route Bonus (Double Miles) 2,000 (A x 100%)
    D Elite Bonus 500 (A x 25%)
    F Miles Counted Toward Elite 2,000 A

    Do It for the Kipper

    So, by all means earn as many flight, class of service, and elite bonus miles as you can. One is as good as another when it comes to redeeming for free travel.

    But be especially diligent in earning elite-qualifying miles, and ultimately elite status itself. The first time you find yourself enjoying caviar and smoked salmon canapés in first class, or just a little extra legroom (as a result of a discretionary upgrade from economy class), you?ll be glad you did.

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