Status Match and Expensive Seats: Diminishing Returns of Airline Loyalty

bangkok airport

I have been a rabid collector of frequent flyer miles since I first entered the workforce back in 2000. When I first started traveling for work I flew with Delta and found every possible way to accumulate miles, from the conventional to the slightly ridiculous. But it paid off. I had status and within a few years enough miles to create a dream trip to Thailand – in Business class of course. In later years I refined my strategies, changed airlines but recently I’ve come to a sad realization. In their ever increasing need to nickel and dime even the most loyal of customers, airlines have completely destroyed the concept of loyalty.

For the last 8 years or so US Airways has been my airline of choice, mostly due to their presence in the DC area and because they were a member of the Star Alliance. Which alliance an airline belongs to is of incredible importance, in fact that’s more important to me than the airline itself. I’ve had what is called Gold status, a middle tier of status, for a number of years and the perks that were associated with it were important to me. I fly to Europe a lot and the free lounge access afforded to me almost wherever I went became a perk that I couldn’t imagine traveling without. But that’s all gone now, those halcyon days of flying awesomeness are I fear a thing of the past, to be displayed in a museum next to the original Boeing 707 and Concord.

Cathay Pacific Lounge Hong Kong

Status Match

When US Airways and American began the process of merging, I was left in a quandary. The airline I was devoted to moved to the One World Alliance, a group of airlines that while good, don’t benefit me as much as the Star Alliance members. Luckily, living in the Washington area, I had another option – United. United makes more sense for me as a preferred airline; DC is one of their hubs and they’re a Star Alliance member. I decided to pursue a status match with them and start my new flying life with an airline I wasn’t entirely sure about, but was willing to try. Turns out I had reasons for those misgivings and I regretted my decision almost immediately.

It’s my fault for not reading the fine print, but the details of the status match did not work out in my favor. United agreed to honor my status with US Airways and gave me Star Alliance Gold for a period of 90 days. During that time I had to earn enough miles (12,500) in order to stay at that status level. That in itself wasn’t a problem, I flew a lot more than that with Star Alliance members in those 90 days. But the fine print said I had to fly ONLY with United in order to meet that threshold and that was the problem. I fly to a variety of different destinations around the world. That means nearly every flight is with a different carrier. Sure, I try to keep my flights within the Star Alliance, but due to the nature of my work there is no way I can fly with only one airline, all of the time. So while I earned double the threshold amount with partner airlines, at the end of those 90 days United mercilessly stripped me of my flying status, throwing me back into the aviation abyss – a place without status. I’ve had status of some form with airlines since the early 2000s, and I wasn’t at all happy about losing it. But I guess I learned some lessons. (As a quick side note, Gold status during that time was nonexistent as no partner lounge allowed me access without a physical card. So I received zero benefit from the status match.)

I learned that retaining customers with a proven track record of travel is no longer important to the airlines. There are just too many of us to matter anymore. Gone are the days when frequent flyers were a small percentage of the population and in 2014 the economics of trying to placate us just don’t make as much sense. So I am once again a free agent. I have miles spread out across four airlines, not enough anywhere to achieve status for next year in all likelihood. As a road warrior this sense of disorganization drives me crazy, and I once again find myself trying to decide – US Airways/American or United? I don’t know the answer, I was hoping United would make that choice easy for me but sadly that just isn’t the case.

Status No Longer of Value

As I write this though I realize that having status isn’t what it used to be and losing it may not be the end of the world. Sure, I’ll miss automatic domestic upgrades and the mileage bonuses were a nice perk. Most of all I’ll miss lounge access, but even that isn’t the worst thing to have happen. But those are the sum total of the benefits, and even those are being devalued every day. Changes in frequent flyer programs means miles are harder to earn and much harder to use. The cost of cashing out for business and first-class seats has gone up exponentially.

Even the silly little benefits are being phased out. The other day I booked a flight on Lufthansa to Malta. The ticket cost nearly $1,300, but I was happy to fly with them and yes, earn some Star Alliance miles. As is my way, I went in to choose my seat assignments – vital for me as a 6’2” guy with bad knees. Picking the right seat isn’t just a perk; it’s a necessity when I fly. I couldn’t believe what I saw though; Lufthansa recently changed their policies and no longer allow passengers to select their seat assignments in advance. Well, that’s not quite true, you can pick your seat but for a fee.

I understand why airlines have so many fees; that the razor thin profit margins involved with aviation requires these new a la carte options. But to force all passengers to pay for any seat assignment, even in the worst chair onboard, is beyond ridiculous and borders on the insulting. They issued a statement in April about their new ‘early seat reservation’ process; the phrasing making it seem as if we’re asking a huge favor of the airline, when in reality this is fairly routine. A basic seat is $35 per leg and one that provides any modicum of comfort is $100. When selecting the seats for my flights, I discovered that the price of the ticket wasn’t $1,300, but $1,500 if I were to select the seats of my choice. It sickened me and still does. On a long-haul flight this is not the way to do business. What about people like me, with physical issues (knees) who need certain seat assignments but don’t want to pay an exorbitant amount for them? Had I known about this policy in advance, I would never have booked with them and it will absolutely impact my booking decisions in the future.

Lufthansa A380 Cabin

Conclusions

With the changes in frequent flyer programs and the diminished perks allotted to frequent flyers, it seems to me that there really is no reason to stay loyal to one airline anymore. I do still believe in the power of the alliances, especially when booking award tickets, but that’s about it. Just as the airlines have chased the money with every introduced fee, passengers are found chasing the best deals – trying to find airlines without Lufthansa-style hidden fees. It’s a challenge, and it’s a new world of aviation where the companies don’t care about their passengers and the passengers really don’t care about the airlines. Maybe it’s not so new and I’m just naïve, but I will miss the days of collecting frequent flyer miles and flying with even a hint of comfort and decorum.

What do you think? Am I just bitter or do I have a point?

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By: Mike

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on , and

7 Responses

  1. Amanda

    You definitely have a point. How do you feel about the changes coming to most major airlines next year, where you’re going to start earning points/miles based on your ticket fare instead of how far you’re actually flying? That one makes ME the most annoyed, since I definitely can’t afford to fly anything but economy.

    Reply
    • Jessica

      This is the worst for me. I’ve never flown anything but economy. I can’t afford it and I’d rather use any points I’ve managed to accrue (especially since I travel part time) to get the ticket in the first place and start building towards my next. And now I’m being punished for booking the ticket I can afford? Many of the people in business and first class don’t need the points as badly as those of us who literally would be unable to travel without them.

      Reply
  2. Gerry

    I’m with you Matt- the loyalty schemes simply aren’t as good anymore. I had Gold status with Air Canada until they did the same thing as United did to you- insist that you fly with them, rather than any Star Alliance partner, to maintain status. I do miss the lounge access, but now I mostly just book on price since loyalty doesn’t really work.

    Reply
  3. Ani @ All About Tripling

    Hi Matt,
    You have a very valid point and I am sure all frequent flyers will agree with you. I myself have my points spread over 4 different loyalty schemes. What pisses me off is the variance in the number of miles you gather depending on the “category” of your economy ticket. 50% if it’s type “O”, 85% if it’s type “S” and the list goes on. What do those types of economy ticket even mean and why have so much confusion ?

    I have a feeling soon there will be a 1 card for all loyalty schemes/airlines. Till then, I guess, we continue to strategise on you we increase our points 😉

    Reply
  4. awty

    I definitely hear you on the issues. The real lesson is to review policies before booking or status matching or whatever else. Its a necessity now.

    Reply
  5. Steven Sullivan

    You have some very valid points. The game has changed, and drastically. There’s a lot more fine print now, and I think status these days makes most sense to those who are business travelers earning it through work travel. For many, it probably makes more sense to buy tickets based on price and schedule, and budget some extra money for upgrading to a better seat or other amenities that might be included for a flyer with status. I’d still participate in the loyalty program in that situation, as eventually a few miles earned here and there add up. But, I wouldn’t chase status if I was doing it on my own dime now. I’m 6’5″ tall, so flying anything over about two hours in a regular coach seat isn’t an option for me, so when I’m flying an airline without status, I do an on shelling out some extra cash for a seat with better legroom.

    I do consider myself lucky. For years I was a loyal Continental flyer, because home was Houston, and they were based there. United eventually became a backup for me, and I kept status on both. Their merger meant the combination of my lifetime mileage in both accounts put me only a few thousand miles short of Million Miler status, which I earned less than two months after those accounts were combined in early 2012.

    Work travel every week keeps my renewing my United 1K status, which my partner gets for free also due to my Million Miler status. He mostly flies Delta for work and has some status there, but it is nice to know we’ve got lifetime United Gold, which also grants Star Alliance Gold, as a backup if my work travel was to go away, or if I switched airlines.

    But, I know we’re very fortunate to be in that situation, mostly due to my job and partly due to some good decisions about who I was flying, as well as the dumb luck of United and Continental merging.

    Reply
  6. Meche

    Aircanada just announced a convoluted way to achieve status for 2016 season. That’s when I decided enough is enough for me. I will enjoy my staralliance gold status next year and join u in the abyss. I will miss the lounge for sure.
    I agree with u airline loyalty program ain’t what it used to be.

    Reply

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