Have Elite Fliers Been Downgraded?

A STEADY rain was soaking the windows of La Guardia Airport when Nancy Thode, an elite frequent flier with Delta Air Lines, approached a gate agent with a pressing question: Had her request for an upgrade cleared?

在纽约拉瓜迪亚机场,窗外的雨水正顺着玻璃连绵不绝地流淌下来。达美航空(Delta Airlines)的精英常旅客南茜·索德(Nancy Thode),走上前迫切地询问登机口的服务员:她升级舱位的请求到底批准了没?

Glancing at her computer, brow furrowed, the agent was not encouraging: “You are No. 13.”



But with a nearby video monitor showing that more than half of the 26 first-class seats were already claimed, Ms. Thode knew her chances were slim. “If somebody comes — diamond, platinum or gold,” the gate agent pointed out, “they’re going to get it.”


Minutes later, Rick Triana, a business traveler, strode up, the word “diamond” emblazoned in capital letters on the tag attached to his Victorinox wheelie-bag. Despite seeing his name at the top of the upgrade list, he confirmed his spot with an agent anyway, lingering around afterward to make sure he wouldn’t be bumped. “You never know,” he said.

几分钟后,商务旅客里克·特里亚纳(Rick Triana)大步走了过来,他的维氏带轮旅行包上,有标签用大写字母印着“DIAMOND”的字样。虽然他看见自己的名字排在升舱名单最前面,他还是跟服务员确认了一下他的位置,之后又在旁边等着,确保他不会被挤掉。“你永远拿不准的。”他说。

As the boarding time neared for the Atlanta-bound flight, the upgrade list began to shrink. Mr. Triana was upgraded to first class. So was a gold-level flier (though his wife was not). Ms. Thode, a social worker from Stamford, Conn., dispatched a friend she was traveling with to check on her status. Bad news. “I get knocked off for the diamonds,” she sighed. “Silver just doesn’t make it.”


Elite status in an airline loyalty program used to be something of an exclusive club, rewarding those who flew the most — typically between 25,000 and 125,000 miles a year, depending on the carrier — with perks and sought-after upgrades into business or first class. These days, though, the advantages of being an elite flier are harder to gauge. The private lounges are more crowded, the priority check-in lines longer. And on some flights there are so many elites that it’s become almost a joke: “Never go to check-in at the elite line; it’s way too long,” said Randy Petersen, the founder of frequent flier Web sites like FlyerTalk.com and MilePoint.com.

航空公司会员忠诚服务计划(loyalty program)中的精英会员——精英常旅客,曾经是个特权俱乐部,向那些飞得最多的人(根据不同航空公司的标准,通常为一年2.5万至12.5万英里不等)回馈额外的优待,其中广受欢迎的福利就有商务舱和头等舱升级。但如今,作为精英会员的优势变得更加难以衡量。私人休息室比以前拥挤,优先办理登机手续的队伍也比过去更长。在某些航班,精英会员的人数多到几乎成了笑话。FlyerTalk.com和MilePoint.com等飞行常旅客网站的创始人兰迪·彼得森(Randy Petersen)说:“千万别去精英柜台办理登机,队排得实在太长了。”

What’s happened? A few things. As the airline industry has merged and shrunk over the years in order to survive, fewer seats on many routes mean scarcer upgrades for top-tier fliers. Meanwhile, the number of travelers with some sort of elite status has grown. Elite fliers are so concentrated on some flights, like San Francisco to New York or Chicago, Mr. Petersen said, that “when they call early boarding, for 196 people on a plane, only 18 people will stay seated.”


But it’s not only that there are more elites these days; it’s also that non-elites can now buy those once-reserved perks à la carte.


Don’t want to wait in line at security? Pay for the express line. How about airline lounge access? That’ll be $50 for a day pass, or the right credit card will get you in for free. Even upgrades are for sale, if seats are available.


While all this may be good news for travelers who fly just once or twice a year, elite frequent fliers say that the moves have been eating away at the cachet and precious privileges that come with elite status.


“It’s certainly degraded the experience,” said Tom Majewski, an investment banker from Darien, Conn., who flies about 100,000 miles a year and is an elite flier with both Delta and American Airlines. For a flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in November, he showed up with his family at the Delta Sky Club at La Guardia, which like other Delta lounges is accessible to frequent fliers at a discounted membership rate tied to their status, as well as to anyone with a platinum or Delta Reserve credit card from American Express.

“它肯定让整个体验降级了,”来自康涅狄格州达里恩的投资银行家汤姆·马耶夫斯基(Tom Majewski)说。他每年大概飞行10万英里,在达美和美国航空都是精英会员。去年11月去往弗罗里达州劳德尔堡时,他和家人来到拉瓜迪亚机场的达美天空俱乐部,这里和达美的其他休息室一样,准许精英常旅客以和会员身份相应的折扣价进入,而任何白金会员,或者美国运通(American Express)的达美里程信用卡持有人,也同样可以进入。

“There was not a seat to be had,” he said. “It was jam-packed.” So the family loaded up on free snack mix and sat out by the gate, where there were still open seats. His big beef, however, is not how crowded the lounges are, but the difficulty in getting upgrades, especially on international flights and popular business routes like New York to Los Angeles. “Slowly but surely they’re scaling back the best frequent-traveler benefits,” he said.


Airlines maintain that even though they’ve begun to offer frequent-flier perks for sale, elites are their priority. While credit-card holders and those who pay for priority boarding can be seated ahead of the masses, that group is called to board after top-tier fliers. As for purchased upgrades, they’re generally offered only after they’ve been made available free to elite members.


“We carefully balance benefits for our credit-card programs so that we match them with popular items like first bag free and priority-boarding availability while not taking value away from our Medallion customers,” said Paul Skrbec, a Delta spokesman.

“我们很仔细地为信用卡项目中的福利寻找平衡点,所以我们给它配套的是像首件行李托运免费和优先登机权这样的热门待遇,同时又不会拿走属于我们勋章计划(Medallion)客户的价值。”达美航空的发言人保罗·斯克尔贝克(Paul Skrbec)说。


YET it is the airlines that, in ever more profitable deals with credit-card companies, have been diluting elite privileges in the first place.


It was 1981 when American Airlines kicked off the loyalty program craze by introducing the first miles-based frequent-flier program. Other airlines followed. Back then, the programs were designed to reward a small cadre of road warriors. Today they provide airlines with piles of cash from selling miles as part of a multibillion-dollar business that features big banks, retailers and global airline partnerships.


North American airlines generated an estimated $15 billion in ancillary revenue last year, according to Amadeus, the global reservations processor, and the IdeaWorks Company, a consulting firm. “Half of that is from frequent-flier programs,” said Jay Sorensen, the president of IdeaWorks.

据全球订票处理系统Amadeus和咨询公司IdeaWorks的估算,去年北美航空公司(North American Airlines)大约创造了150亿美元的副业收入。“这其中有一半是来自常旅客计划,”IdeaWorks的总裁杰伊·索伦森(Jay Sorensen)说。

But up until a few years ago, while consumers could earn miles by, say, using a certain credit card, those miles could not be used to earn elite status. Only qualifying miles — those traditionally earned by flying — could make someone elite.


What is different now is that qualifying miles, too, are on the table in this giant global exchange, thus enabling people to buy into elite status without ever boarding a plane. On some airlines, like US Airways, consumers can buy status outright. And qualifying miles, like regular miles, are now being used as credit-card lures as well. The $450-a-year Delta Reserve card from American Express, for example, offers 10,000 qualifying miles with your first purchase. For spending $30,000 in a calendar year, you get 15,000 more qualifying miles, and when you hit $60,000 in annual spending, you get another 15,000. Those bonuses alone are enough to earn you Silver status.

如今不一样的是,在这个全球化的交易大环境下,连合格里程都可以摆上桌面叫卖,从而也让人可以完全不需要坐飞机就能买到精英会员地位。在某些航空公司,比如全美航空(US Airways),消费者可以完全用钱买到会员级别。而合格里程如今也像常规里程一样,被用作信用卡的诱饵。比如,美国运通450美元一年的达美尊享信用卡(Delta Reserve),在你头一次订票时即送出1万英里的合格里程。在一个日历年度内消费满3万美元,就会再得到1.5万英里的合格里程,而当年度消费达到6万美元时,还会再得到1.5万英里。单是这些奖励就足以让你拥有银卡会员身份。

While airlines are generally reluctant to discuss the number of people who have qualified for elite status, Mr. Petersen, who has been tracking loyalty programs since 1986, estimated that about 10 years ago, it used to be 2 or 3 percent of active program members. “Today,” he said, “it’s more like 6 percent.”


All of this affects the value of actually being elite. “The silver guys, the lowest elite level, has become somewhat the throwaway level in the upgrade pool,” Mr. Petersen said. “Far less than 50 percent of the lowest tiers are able to get the benefits out of the upgrade part of elite status.”


Most frequent fliers, including Mr. Petersen, agree that, despite the erosion of many benefits over the years, elite status still comes with a few perks worth striving for — including faster security lines; free checked bags, allowing elite passengers to avoid the overhead-bin scrum; rebooking priority when a flight is oversold; and often better access to award seats. And there is no doubt that traveling as an elite is better than the alternative. Though lounges may be more crowded, there are still free snacks and private bathrooms. And lower-ranking elites still have a decent chance of scoring an upgrade on flights that are not so popular with business travelers.


Recognizing that expanding elite programs needed something new to strive for, some airlines have established new top categories, widening the gap between elites at the head of the line and those behind them. Delta added a fourth tier — diamond — in 2009 to reward travelers who had long since passed the 75,000-mile benchmark for top-level elite status. Diamond became the new top status bestowed on customers who earn a minimum of 125,000 miles a year. When United merged with Continental, it also moved from three elite tiers to four.

在意识到精英会员计划的扩大需要新的东西来吸引旅客后,一些航空公司设立了新的会员最高级别,进一步将最顶端的精英会员与其他精英会员分开。达美航空在2009年增加了第四个级别——“钻石级”——来回馈那些飞行里程远远超过最高级别会员7.5万英里标准的旅客。钻石级成为新的会员最高级别,授予那些每年至少飞12.5万英里的客户。而在联合航空(United Airlines)与美国大陆航空(Continental Airlines)合并之后,他们也将精英级别从三个提升到了四个。

At the same time, some benefits at the lower levels have been scrubbed. In March, Delta reduced the number of free checked bags for the lowest tier of its elite fliers from two to one. And United has discontinued its perk of letting PremierSilver frequent fliers — the lowest level, at 25,000 miles a year — reserve Economy Plus seats with extra legroom when buying a ticket. Now, those elites must wait to reserve an Economy Plus seat at check-in — that is, if a higher-ranking frequent flier or customer who paid extra for Economy Plus hasn’t nabbed the last one. (United said the change was made to ensure that higher-level elites, who tend to book closer to departure, have first dibs on Economy Plus seats.)


But the erosion of elite benefits over the years also extends to certain intangibles like longer hold times and indifferent customer service attitudes toward top-tier fliers. “Ten years ago a top-tier loyalty program member would have received consistently excellent service from airline representatives,” including certain unwritten favors, like the elimination of change fees, or opening up award inventory on a given flight, said Ryan Lile, a travel consultant based in Portland, Ore., who specializes in award bookings and maximizing frequent-flier benefits. “They would really make an effort to impress the customer and not nickel-and-dime you.” Today, he said, a top-tier flier “would be laughed at” for making such requests.

然而,这些年精英会员福利的缩水,已经延伸到了某些软性的服务上面,比如电话持线等待时间更长,对待顶级精英会员的服务态度越来越冷淡等等。在俄勒冈州波特兰市工作的旅游顾问赖恩·里尔(Ryan Lile)专门负责赠票和常客利益最大化业务,他说:“10年前,忠诚计划的最高级会员会持续得到航空公司代表的优质服务,”包括一些不成文的优惠,比如免费改签,或者由会员任意选择某个航班上的各项会员奖励等。“他们真的会努力去给客人留下良好印象,并且不会跟客人斤斤计较。”他说,如今,如果一个精英会员去申请那些优惠的话,“会被取笑的”。

SO who is it that the airlines are rewarding these days? Those who pay up. Airlines are increasingly giving their best rewards not to just passengers who fly the most but also those who pay the highest fares. If an elite customer buys a full-fare coach seat, for example, that person will typically trump another elite in the same tier who has not when it comes to an upgrade.


Some airlines have built this thinking into their award programs. In 2010, Southwest moved from a system that awarded participants credit for flights to one that awards points based on the amount of money spent. And airlines have long offered invitation-only programs like United’s Global Services and American’s ConciergeKey, which lavish perks on those who spend the most on flights.

一些航空公司已经将这种思维用到了他们的奖励计划当中。2012年,西南航空(Southwest Airlines)放弃了原有的以旅客里程数为基准的奖励系统,转而以花费金额为基准奖励旅客。而很多航空公司的项目,比如联合航空的环球服务(Global Services)和美国航空的尊贵会籍(ConciergeKey)等,在很久以前就开始提供只有受邀旅客能够参加的服务项目,将大量福利馈赠给那些在航班上花最多钱的人。

“Whether or not you are the best customer is not as important as it used to be,” said Rick Seaney, the chief executive of Farecompare.com, a travel Web site. Frequent-flier programs are actually more egalitarian. You get the perks, regardless, “if you have enough money.”

“你是否是最好的顾客,这已经不像过去那么重要了,”旅游网站Farecompare.com的首席执行官里克·西尼(Rick Seaney)说。精英常旅客计划现在其实更趋于平等主义。无论你是谁,都可以得到福利,“前提是,你钱够多。”