Delta now has four elite levels for mileage awards, as does United, plus rank-conscious queues and other displays of status.
“When everyone’s an elite flier, no one is,” Delta Air Lines explained in an email to frequent fliers last fall.
The email included what would seem to be bad news for Medallion fliers like me, who earn special status on the airline by flying at least 25,000 miles a year. We would be required to spend more on airline tickets to reach a given tier of status than was previously required.
But Delta pitched the change as an enhancement. “Your loyalty should earn you exclusive benefits,” the airline said. So they were changing the program rules to add “even more exclusivity.” In other words, if elite status becomes harder to reach, getting there will only better demonstrate my eliteness.
When airline elite programs were introduced in the 1980s, there were just two levels: regular and elite. But airlines have become increasingly skilled at ranking fliers by just how elite they are (and also at getting frequent fliers to refer to themselves as “elites” un-self-consciously). Since merging with Northwest Airlines in 2009, Delta has had four elite levels, each named after increasingly precious substances. The highest elite level, Diamond Medallion, requires flying 125,000 miles a year, equivalent to 25 round trips between New York and San Francisco.
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United also has four levels, while American is a little more egalitarian with three — although those are just the levels listed in the frequent-flier brochures shown to the public. Each major airline also has an extra, invitation-only elite status level so exclusive the membership criteria are undisclosed.
A number of companies keep track of their best customers. But airline elite programs are remarkable for their public display of customer importance rankings. Airlines send frequent fliers luggage tags, color-coded according to their elite tier. (Pro tip: Don’t use these; they make you look status conscious.) Rank-ordered upgrade queues are displayed on boarding gate monitors, so everyone can see whether “BAR/J” was moved up to first class or not.
All three major airlines give elite fliers a separate boarding lane. But Delta goes one step further by having elites walk across a special blue Sky Priority carpet, as though they were entering a gala rather than boarding a 737 to Detroit.
Still, as that Delta email pointed out, those trappings of eliteness can lose their luster when half the plane also gets them. This isn’t purely about feeling superior; early boarding is mostly useful for finding overhead bin space if it gets you ahead of the pack.
A few economic factors have led to acute elite bloat in recent years. Airlines have cut capacity, so planes are packed and there are fewer choice seats to hand out. Business travel has returned with the economic recovery. Airlines have increasingly chased after co-branded credit card business by handing out not only redeemable points to credit card holders but also miles that count toward elite qualification — so some customers are getting elite status based on their nonairline spending.
As airlines merge, it is easier for travelers to consolidate all their travel with one airline and achieve status without flying lots of painful connections. As such, flying 60,000 miles a year on a single airline isn’t the feat it once was. (This last part, incidentally, was one of the plot holes in “Up in the Air”: If George Clooney was flying everywhere on pre-merger American, why didn’t every other scene involve him connecting in Dallas?)
If you’ve flown a Monday morning Delta flight from New York to Atlanta, you’ve probably seen an upgrade list that is 70 names deep, and you may understand why it’s no longer enough for airlines to add status tiers. They have to cut the ranks of fliers who are eligible for various benefits.
Partly, they have done this through moves like the one announced in that “exclusivity” email: United and Delta imposed, then increased, minimum-spending requirements on top of the usual distance-based requirements to reach elite status. American and United have made it harder to reach elite status by flying on their partner airlines like Croatia Airlines or Germanwings.
But mostly, they have dealt with the problem of excess elites by devaluing the lowest tier. United and Delta’s first tiers are both named for silver, which is a precious metal, but silver customers are increasingly treated like zinc.
“Benefits that used to be available to members with the first tier of elite status now are held back for folks with mid-tier,” said Gary Leff, who writes the View from the Wing blog on frequent-flier programs. Or as they say, 50,000 miles is the new 25,000.
For example, airlines no longer have all their elites board at once. On Delta, only Gold Medallion and higher fliers are allowed to walk the Sky Priority carpet; Silver Medallions board afterward, as Zone 1. And they must use the same line as the other passengers. United and American have also split up their elite boarding, with the higher-status tiers boarding before the entry-level one. On Delta, Silvers have been banned from the priority check-in and security lanes since 2010.
In the last year, all three major airlines have increased the degree of eliteness necessary to book a premium economy seat well in advance, free. On United and American, this now requires reaching the 50,000-mile elite tier. Delta, true to its promise of greater exclusivity, reserves that benefit for Platinum Medallions, who fly at least 75,000 miles.
At the same time that lower-tier elites have lost benefits, those at the top have received sweeter deals. (Sound like any other part of the economy?) Leff notes that Delta has recently started offering coveted international upgrades to its highest-level elites (traditionally, these are much harder to get than domestic upgrades). American has started letting its top elites do same-day flight changes free.
Delta isn’t wrong: If everyone’s an elite flier, no one is. New restrictions mean that when Platinum and Diamond Medallions go to book a Comfort+ seat, it will likely be there for their taking. But there is another way that increased benefit stratification works for the airlines, besides satisfying their most frequent customers.
If you’ve ever had a really frank conversation with a brand-loyal frequent flier, you may understand the perverse way elite status can get tied up in a person’s sense of self-worth. By changing the priority seating rules, Delta has said to me I am no longer the sort of person who deserves to pay a regular economy fare and reserve a Comfort+ seat at the time of booking. I, they are saying, am not as special as I had once been led to believe I was.
The only way for me to prove them wrong is by flying 75,000 miles this year on Delta. And by gum, I will do just that.