Why changes to airline frequent flier programs don’t fly

Two years ago I got a mailing from American Airlines telling me that if I flew a certain amount within a certain time they’d give me “platinum” status in their Aadvantage frequent flier program. So I took the bait and for a while things were rosy. Free upgrades to business or first class almost every time I flew!

But now, two years later, when I show up at the airport the upgrade list has 10 to 20 people and on some flights no one gets upgraded. Even spending 15,000 miles and a $75 co-pay to upgrade to business class is getting harder if not impossible unless you’re willing to fly the red-eye flights or the 6 a.m. departures with connecting flights.

But even some of the less desirable perks have been diluted. Priority boarding? Everyone has it now thanks to airline credit cards. It’s a joke.

What’s happened? Airline consolidation means that customers have more combined miles and points to redeem, and more have “status”; airlines have slashed first- and business-class domestic fares, enticing more people to buy them rather than play upgrade roulette; and airlines are offering cheap last-minute “buy ups” to first and business class when you buy an economy airfare.

By 2018, Delta, for example, has stated it aims to sell 70 percent of business- and first-class seats rather than give them away; in 2011 they sold only 31 percent and gave away the other 69 percent to elite fliers.

Other changes have made status and miles harder to earn. Last year United and Delta started to require minimum annual spends to gain elite status; American has since followed suit. In contrast, JetBlue still only requires a minimum number of flights and/or points to gain “Mosaic” status in its TrueBlue program; there’s no minimum dollar spend.

Adding insult to injury, American announced in July that it would be awarding as few as 25 percent of miles flown on partner airlines such as British Airways, Alaska and Japan Air Lines, down from 100 percent previously, a move they copied from other major U.S. airlines.

For most fliers, free upgrades are the most valuable benefit of airline loyalty. There are others, of course, such as free checked bags and priority boarding, but you can get those with an airline credit card. But for me, those free upgrades were the only reason to be loyal. And I'm not alone in questioning the value of sticking to one airline. A recent poll we did on Airfarewatchdog.com tells the story: When asked if airline loyalty still pays, almost 80 percent of over 1,500 respondents said "no."

Have airlines killed the goose that laid the golden miles?

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(George Hobica is founder of the low-airfare listing website Airfarewatchdog.com.)