The Consumer Advocate Who Wants Your Frequent Flyer Program to Get Worse

When Christopher Elliott loves your loyalty program, you know you’re doing something wrong.

He loves Delta’s planned changes for 2015 to go revenue-based, even though he doesn’t seem to get that they take what he hates about loyalty programs in an even more extreme direction.

The way I square this circle is that I actually think he:

  • Hates the people who like and benefit from loyalty programs.
  • Finds that writing provocative things generates traffic and kudos from his employers, even when those things are utterly non-sensical.

The thrust of the over complaint of ‘Elliott-the-Populist’ is that frequent flyer programs reward some people and not other people. And those who benefit from the program reap unjustified benefits.

To Elliott, it doesn’t matter that those are the most profitable customers that airline has. Those benefits must come at the expense of other travelers, rather than perhaps even in the extreme benefiting other travelers by providing a cross-subsidy, allowing the average traveler to buy inexpensive seats that would otherwise go unsold at the margin.

Loyalty programs may be the single greatest scam pulled on the traveling public.

Want to segment customers into castes of “haves” and “have-nots”? Create legions of blindly brand-loyal passengers? Lift your profits to avaricious new heights?

Nothing does it like a clever frequent flier program.

At the same time, Elliott argues that the frequent flyer who is being well-treated is also getting taken for a ride because they aren’t getting more, or geting more consistently for free. (Presumably the frequent flyer is being harmed by the passenger who pays for premium cabin travel.)

Yet, as a consumer advocate, not a day goes by that I don’t receive a despondent email from a platinum cardmember who spent every travel dollar with a company, only to come up empty-handed, betrayed by a program’s vague promises.

Nothing is ever the fault of the traveler. And anything that an airline does is underhanded.

Who wouldn’t be fatigued after hearing from thousands of unhappy passengers whose miles expired or were denied “elite” status or were banished to the back of the plane on a Transpacific flight? Who wouldn’t be furious at the travel companies whose adhesion contracts allow them to pull this barely legal bait-and-switch?

Elite frequent flyers of course, in most programs, don’t find their miles expiring because by their very nature they earn or spend miles at least once every 18 (or 24 or 36) months. Not all programs’ miles expire.

Outside the U.S. of course actual expiration of miles is more common. For instance, Singapore Airlines Krisflyer miles expire 3 years after they’re earned if they aren’t used (and can be extended for a fee).

But denied elite status? There’s generally a pretty clear criteria for how it’s earned and those who follow that criteria receive it, and those who do not usually don’t receive it (although perhaps exceptions are made).

I can think of only one case where things have been really less than clear for US frequent flyers (although perfectly clear for readers of this blog).

And as for barely legal, well, the Supreme Court disagrees with Mr. Elliott’s analysis.

But what’s the upshot of all of this?

And that is why I love Delta Air Lines’ new loyalty program.

Mr. Elliott makes controversial statements. Even when they make no sense.

What program in the U.S. is going to be the ultimate in rewarding the haves over the have nots?

A revenue-based program that awards elite status based on a minimum level of spending (United followed Delta in announcing this) and a revenue-based program that awards miles based on ticket price.

Elliott should hate this. I can only surmise he likes it because many frequent flyers don’t.

Best I can tell from the argument, he actually likes it because it’s bad for flyers. And they’re finally going to wake up and give up on frequent flyer programs entirely as a result of Delta going off the deep end.

Me, I’ve got my Plan B.

But we now know that Christopher Elliott revels in things that are bad for consumers on purpose. And takes a Leninist view of the overarching history of loyalty programs — that it is necessary for those programs to exacerbate their internal contradictions and enter crisis in order to finally collapse.

So he’s much more of a scholar than I ever realized.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Consumer advocates are bitter people who got rejected by corporate America, so their only option left is trying to brain wash the masses against the corporations that didn’t hire him

    Elliot is a pure loser. He can sit in his spirit air non reclining seat while my miles take me 3-class first to Europe and Asia

  2. Chris Elliot and team actually helped me when I had a Global Entry application issue with CBP free of charge. While I might not agree with him 100%, I’m starting to have more and more respect for him because he actually focuses on helping his readers and not pushing CC links nonstop.

  3. Yep! I’m back! Sorry, I’m trying not to chime in anymore on your posts but this one I wanted to share my experience. Back to my original post, it would be awesome for you to leverage your contacts even once a month and help one of your readers who’s had an issue they can’t resolve. Sort of give back to the readers, as Chris as done. Just an idea.

  4. @Gary-

    Cool! I’d love to hear about it. To be honest, those are some of Chris’ most helpful posts, because the are issues that commonly others have and they offer resolution advice.

  5. Readers contact me, I offer advice and sometimes either share with them who to contact or reach out to folks on their behalf. I don’t post about it because I don’t make it a public thing, I couldn’t handle the correspondence and sometimes the most effective way to resolve things is to do so quietly (it can be easier for a company to make things good with someone if it isn’t going to be broadcast that they’ve done so). For some reason it never occurred to me to try to make it a public thing.

  6. @Tyler

    If you find Elliot’s postings so helpful, and Gary’s so unhelpful, why are you here?

  7. I do not agree with CE, but as a journalist in a mainstream newspaper, he needs to write articles that align with the mass market. Most frequent flyers do not exploit the FFP’s the way we do and probable feel cheated when they find they cannot spend their miles except to get a toaster or some other rubbish. As people generally only want to listen to those they agree with, he needs to tailor his articles to their worldview. This explains the normal airlines bad, consumers good stuff he writes (though it does not explain his support of skypesos, so I guess that is the exception that proves the rule)

  8. @ Gary, is email the best method to get an answer from you? I’ve asked a couple questions in the comment sections of two different blog post, specifically about the Hyatt Gift Cards discount in the Milepoint premium packages that you were selling, but did not receive a reply for you.

  9. Chris Elliott is very respected in the travel community. I know, I used to be a travel agent. His website has good resources for people to do their own complaining, etc. As far as Delta’s SkyMiles changes, get used to it. There will be many more changes. But for people who were mileage running halfway around the world, in first class on $200 fares or flying 25k or 50k miles on flights/airfares that barely added up to $3k or $4k…well it had to happen. The “real” frequent flyers who actually have their “butts in seats” will finally get the “rewards”, that they have earned. And all those upgrade lists with 50 names on them will begin to thin out. The total lack of low level award seats at 9 months prior to planned trip date will finally allow some other people to use their miles. Sorry, you didn’t score any points with this blog post. And it may come back to haunt you.

  10. There is one valid reason to support revenue-based programs like those of Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America: Customers can maximize the value of these programs without mastering any intricacies. In other words, they are programs for the 90% who don’t want to spend a lot of time learning the ropes and keeping up to date on changes.

    Delta’s program has chart-based redemption, so it goes less than halfway to the simplicity of a completely revenue-based program. So Elliott should prefer Southwest’s program. I wonder if he does.

    From an airline’s point of view, making the 90% happy must have greater value than pleasing us 10% obsessives, don’t you think? Southwest and JetBlue clearly believe so.

  11. @Tyler
    So what if both Chris and Gary were liked by many and disliked by many more? Wouldn’t that just make them the two sides of the same rusted coin?

    Kind of like a coin made of Justin Beiber on one side and Taylor Swift on the other. Like a Swiftin Tayber coin.

    Okay… I’ll work on the name, but you get what I’m sayin.

    @Gary – Good one bringing up the only other polarizing Frequent Flyer pundit that upsets more good hard working frequent flyers and mile collectors than yourself. A+

    A wise man once said;
    “There’s no sense in arguin which turd is the shinier turd. Cuz a turds a turd.”
    – Justin Beiber

  12. @Jeff aka “Michelle” and “Bruce” and “Devin” and “Scott” and “Lindsey” and “Walter” from other comments here, you are always welcome to criticize me in the comments but I ask that you attempt to do so with reasoned argument.

  13. Jeff, I have zero clue what you are talking about. I feel neither Chris or Gary is as bad as you make them sound- they are both very knowledgeable and provide some excellent advice (although I of course disagree with some posts every now and then obviously).

  14. I am one of those BITS (butt in the seat) FF whose employer pays BE for international travel. I will have 6-8 trips this year with an average ticket price of $7,000.

    I like Delta’s new program because it separates the wheat from the chaff and really rewards people who happen to spend the most.

    A basic rule of economics is that when everybody has something, it has little value. Same with airline status. The changes DL is making will have the effect of thinning out the herd of “elites” who churn CC for a living.

    You may not like it, but those of us who must travel and cannot get upgrades because of the tools who fly mileage runs up front for $200 bucks usually paid for by bump vouchers get all the seats will be the ones who benefit in the long run.

  15. Elliott writes for the masses who visit the cousins in Schenectady every other year. Elliott would have to learn a lot to reach the level of “clueless” when it comes to loyalty programs. He’s deliberately provocative to drive page views and comments. Read Elliott if you like to whine and cry and shake your fist at the evil airlines; read View from the Wing if you want to take great trips to great places.

    I’m back from Africa and India; headed to Scandinavia in May. You won’t do that reading Elliott.

  16. As several have noted, Elliott writes from the view of the occasional economy leisure traveler, who gets a really cheap ticket, and with it an admittedly pretty uncomfortable experience. What I think he does not understand is that those of us who use the FF programs to get upgrades, who he refers to as “fanboys who learned to hack the system” have nothing to do with why the economy flight experience is so bad. We are just people trying to improve our own experience. The reason the economy experience is so bad is that people don’t pay enough to get something better, not that airlines are too busy taking care of FFs to devote any resources to it. I’m sure from his writings, though, that he thinks that if FF programs went away tomorrow, the occasional traveler’s experience would somehow be better. It wouldn’t.

  17. first, @JohnB you clearly have no idea what you are talking about. Millage running was dead when Delta introduced MQDS. The new problem is that people who fly, the “Real” frequent flyers as you put it, will earn less, not more, because of this change. Also status is easier to come by on delta then ever and millions of miles are being printed. The miles and status are going to credit card spenders though, not flyers.

  18. Second,I agree with your analysis Gary, Elliot hates frequent flyers and frequent flyer programs and correctly assess that deltas move will cause people to pick airlines based on things other than loyalty programs. What you didn’t cover, which is far more hilarious, is the part where Elliot thinks this change has anything to do with manufactured points earning. Apparently the shenanigans of “pudding boxes or U.S. Mint coins” (really pudding boxes? what is this the 90s?) is over because of this change. The “fanboys” are still getting the biggest perks. Manufactured spend is still alive and well (even though VRs are dead)and, though I wouldn’t be caught dead amassing sky-pesos, Delta status can be easily earned through a credit card.

  19. C.E. Needs to get a real job! NG is not a travel magazine and they hired this idiot from Orlando who thinks he 1. knows how to write 2. knows anything about consumers 3. knows about the travel industry.

    Elliot is nothing but a journalist who is not pleased that he has got NO free bumps to F or B class for him and his family – yes who takes little kids with them on work trips.

    The biggest problem I have is he is in the Suzie Orman class he pushes his own agenda and views when he writes. Keep your PERSOANL VIEWS out of articles.

  20. I don’t know why everyone keeps giving this guy more exposure. He’s obviously a moron who doesn’t understand anything about FF programs.

  21. @Ben,

    Nothing in the frequent flyer history, hasn’t been copied by a competitor. What one airline does, the next airline copies or matches. The die was cast, give it a year.
    As far as buying status, one could buy status on US for years, as well. Amex is going to limit card bonuses. What makes you think Chase or CitiBank, won’t be next? Will the credit card bonuses end, probably not. But, there are limits coming. The airlines aren’t in a desperate need of money to sell those miles to the card issuers, anymore. The economy has improved. And all those miles floating out there from credit cards are giving airline CEOs some pause….
    Plenty of flyers will be doing end of year mileage runs. One who needs 1000 miles or $300 of MQD. People will do, what they need to do. That will not end because of MQDs. Those mistake airfares still have plenty of flyers. Delta was never a favorite of mileage runners because of its limited partners. But, that hasn’t ended mileage running.
    As far as knowing what I am talking about,…after 40 years in the travel business, you can’t even imagine what I know.

  22. Someone flies 100k miles at company expense.
    The guy sitting next to him flies 100K miles on his own dime.
    Who’s more loyal?

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