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You’re Going to Have to Work Harder to Keep Your Airline Status

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Frequent fliers grew accustomed to relaxed rules for reaching elite airline status during the pandemic. Now carriers are raising the bar for earning rewards, leaving casual travelers with little recourse.

As work and international travel dried up two years ago, airlines made it easier for people to maintain and earn status in a bid to retain their business. That meant the number of customers enrolled in loyalty programs ballooned, making it harder for fliers to attain perks like upgraded seats and lounge access.

“The problem right now is there are too many people with status,” says

Hal Brierley,

chief executive of the Brierley Group, a consulting firm that focuses on customer-loyalty programs. Mr. Brierley worked as an outside consultant to help American Airlines roll out its frequent-flier program in 1981.

Last week,

Delta Air Lines Inc.

became the latest carrier to raise the bar on how much money customers must spend to reach the highest tiers of rewards, following a similar change implemented this year by

American Airlines Group Inc.

It is part of an industry shift that travel experts say will lead to fewer travelers qualifying for loyalty programs, adding to the frustrations of air travel for some and creating a more exclusive experience for others. 

For those with continued elite status, the changes stand to free up access to first-class upgrades and other perks. Those now at risk of losing status say it might not be worth the hassle to start from scratch building up miles with a new airline. Instead, some fliers say they might be scrambling to spend more on credit cards or buying pricier seats to qualify. 

“The airlines really want to reward the people who spend the most with them,” says Yi Gao, an associate professor at Purdue University’s School of Aviation and Transportation Technology. “That makes their benefits more exclusive.”

Zac Bowling, who lives in Alameda, Calif., and works as an engineer for Google, says he travels far less for work than he did before Covid and has had status with multiple airlines over the years, including American.

Since American changed its frequent-flier program this year to focus on how much people spend rather than how often or how far they fly, Mr. Bowling says he is more inclined to purchase seats in first or business class to reach the spending thresholds to maintain his status. In effect, he’s missing out on the perk of free upgrades that comes with his status.

Despite his frustration, Mr. Bowling says he is committed to maintaining his status in hope that he will get to use the perks when he starts traveling again. “It is so much harder to get status from zero that I don’t want to lose it,” he says.

A spokeswoman for American said the changes were made to simplify how travelers could qualify for status.

The perks of elite status can include early boarding, free seat upgrades, a separate check-in lane and bonus miles.



Photo:

yuki iwamura/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Beginning in 2023, Delta travelers will need to spend 33% more on flights to qualify for Gold, Platinum and Diamond Medallion status for 2024. Delta didn’t make any changes to its requirements around the number of miles and segments a person must fly.

“We’re listening to our customers and constantly looking for opportunities to preserve and elevate the premium experience that they expect,” said Dwight James, Delta’s senior vice president of loyalty and CEO of Delta Vacations.

Delta said it would continue to provide a waiver to people with certain co-branded credit cards that frees them from needing to spend a certain amount on flights with the airline. To qualify, cardholders must spend at least $25,000 during the calendar year if they want to reach Platinum, Gold or Silver Medallion Status. For Diamond Medallion status, they must spend at least $250,000.

Industry observers say airlines face little risk from updating their loyalty programs. Business travelers often don’t have much say in the flights they choose, Mr. Gao says. Consolidation within the airline industry over the years has reduced competition within many hubs, meaning fliers may not have many other airlines to choose from near where they live.

American Chief Executive

Robert Isom

said during an earnings call in July that enrollments in the company’s AAdvantage loyalty program were occurring at record levels. A spokeswoman for American Airlines declined to disclose the precise number.

Delta has more than 100 million SkyMiles members and continues “to see record number of enrollments and participation,” Delta’s Mr. James said in an email.

The glut of people holding status with the airlines has effectively diluted many of the benefits, frustrated travelers say. The perks of elite status can include early boarding, free seat upgrades, a separate check-in lane, bonus miles, passes to airport lounges and even the right to grant status to a family member or friend. 

Chris White, a quality manager for a biopharmaceutical company who lives in Minneapolis, says he regularly encounters Delta flights with as many as 50 people on the upgrade list. “It seems like half the plane gets on whenever they board the Diamond Medallion members,” he says.

In anticipation of traveling more this year, Mr. White purchased a Delta Sky Club membership to access Delta’s lounges. Often, though, he finds that the lounges are so crowded he would rather sit at the gate.

United Airlines Holdings Inc.

redesigned its loyalty program in 2019 to give priority to the amount travelers spent with the airline—rather than how often or how far they flew—to determine what status they qualified for. 

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“You have to have some sort of thoughtful balancing of the benefits that are available and the number of customers that essentially earn the opportunity to access those benefits,” says Luc Bondar, United’s vice president of marketing and loyalty and president of MileagePlus.

The changes allowed United to shrink the total size of the program, Mr. Bondar says.

Nick Brashear, a field engineer for a dental equipment company, continued to travel for work throughout the pandemic. He earned enough miles to roll over and qualify for Gold Medallion status on Delta for the first time this year. He already has various levels of status with

Southwest Airlines Co.

, American Airlines and United.

With status on Delta becoming harder to attain, he says he’ll book more with Southwest because of its prices.

“I’ll just fly what I fly,” Mr. Brashear says.

Write to Jacob Passy at [email protected]

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