Loyalty Programs Need To Do More For People Who Qualify “The Real Way”

Airlines and hotels want to make sure that their best customers continue to choose them as they return to travel. Many of those best customers are business travelers, and large corporate business travel hasn’t returned nearly to the extent that leisure and small business travel have. Many of those best customers are international travelers who haven’t been welcomed by destinations they’d otherwise visit, either.

As a result loyalty programs have scrambled to make sure engaged travelers can stay active in their programs next year. Some have done it with straight status extensions (Delta, Hilton, Air Canada) while others have done it with a variety of programs (American, United, Southwest).

The lure of keeping elite members on the treadmill – once they’re ready to travel, even though some won’t return – is great enough that I expect at least some programs to offer “win back” promotions for elites who don’t requalify for status next year even under substantially-reduced criteria.

That means there are going to be separate groups of elites next year:

  • 2022 program year elites who earned their status in 2019, and haven’t been traveling
  • 2022 program year elites who have continued to provide business to their preferred airlines and hotel chains and earned status ‘the hard way’

This second group has something of a legitimate beef with their brand. They’ve chosen their travel provider, trying to earn their status. They’ve selected less convenient flights, sometimes connections rather than non-stops. They’ve chosen less convenient hotels. They may have paid more than what competitors were pricing their products at. And they’ve done all of that all while accepting lower levels of service (fewer meals in airline cabins, limited housekeeping or breakfast benefits and closed club lounges at hotels).

And they didn’t need to do that, since as the year went on it became clear they could have just taken advantage of promotions or extensions to keep their elite level in 2022.

To be sure, being an earned elite versus an extended elite isn’t exactly the same at all brands.

  • Hyatt doesn’t give confirmed suite upgrades or a concierge to those who fail to hit 60 nights, so in that way elites who have been traveling will ‘get more in 2022’ than those who haven’t.

  • Hilton straight extended, so did Delta, and they’re offering rollover nights and miles to those who stayed and flew. Aeroplan offers even more credit for this year’s flying towards earning status in 2022. That makes it easier to earn status for 2023. But it doesn’t help give these customers more in 2022 than if they hadn’t traveled at all.

  • American Airlines prioritizes upgrades based on rolling 12-month spend, so those who have been spending do get higher tie-breaker priority for forward cabins.

That’s mostly weak sauce. Even when there’s no direct tradeoff between benefits that elite members receive, those who earned it the hard way feel jilted. And there is a tradeoff between benefits. American Airlines has far too few extra legroom coach seats, especially on their Boeing 737 aircraft, and I often find it difficult to get an extra legroom aisle seat when booking within a couple weeks of travel. More elites creates more competition for these seats.

Each program should strategize something extra for those who earn status based on 2021’s criteria rather than simply having their status extended, and should do something extra special for those who earn status based on ‘normal’ criteria as well.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Yes, im amazed that most brands are prioritizing the FEAR of losing someone who hasn’t traveled over the gratitude to reward those that have. I guess it proves FEAR is more powerful than LOVE.

  2. I flew to Hawaii on United and earned 1250 redeemable miles total for both flights. Sure the fare was lowish, but it was still a regular economy fare, this seems so low it wouldn’t even factor into any decision, but I guess thats what they want?

  3. Agreed. I have already earned my 1K renewal on UA (by non-pandemic requirements), Titanium at Marriott, Diamond at Hilton and will requalify for EP on AA by the end of the year. I understand that many travelers are grounded by their employers and understand the status extensions, it would be nice for those of us bringing in revenue to be rewarded.

  4. Does some of this happen, just behind the scenes, like with room upgrades? We are at Alila Napa on a points stay, and were upgraded to a Vineyard View Suite (nicest room on property). I think they are at capacity and had to put someone in it, but we are on a points stay. I am globalist, and requalified through nights last year (and will hit 60 for the year after this stay).

  5. I mostly agree with this, but also: Is it really earning status “the hard way” when your employer is paying for all your travel? (Generally speaking here.) I wish there were somehow a way to further differentiate between those using their own $ to travel and those using someone else’s.

  6. I hear what you’re saying, Gary, but when was the last time you saw an airline see its loyalty program from the traveler’s perspective? This has nothing to do with “fairness” – it’s all about maximizing profitability.

    You just spent a lot of time/money to gain status on your airline(s). Why would you go free agent in 2022? The airlines assume you won’t. I suspect they’re probably right.

    By contrast, those of us who were elite when we were traveling in 2019, but who might have taken 1 or 2 leisure flights since then, and inevitably found the experience to be mediocre or worse, are tempted to see if the grass is greener elsewhere. And the carriers know that we very well might. Much of my spend on 2019 was international business class. If they don’t extend my 1K next year, I will absolutely try other airlines when the borders reopen. And I’m not alone. I’ve talked to a bunch of Premiers who feel similarly.

  7. Amen. I’ve lived on the road 365 for 7 years regardless of the pandemic. And will likely cross 100 actual nights with Marriott, Hilton & Hyatt for something like the 5th year now. Hard to tell these day with carryover and CC nights.

    Currently at 198 Hyatt, 144 Marriott & 119 Hilton including to whatever they employ for carryover and CC bonus.

    Hyatt always wins because they appreciate loyalty more than the rest and have the best redemption opportunities. Some Marriott properties seem to actively ignore elite benefits but their high end redemptions and airline transfers are awesome so they get priority for that. You can get Hilton diamond status in a box of cracker jacks, but at least they guarantee free breakfast.

    I do lag in airline status however since I spend 6 months abroad and don’t have a homebase airport. Still should hit DL Silver, AA Gold & UA Plat. But to be fair that is based on whatever pandemic carryover or incentives they have.

    Eventually elite programs need to realize that they need to prioritize people who actually spend money with them rather than those who did 2 years ago and may never again. Tired of missing out on upgrades to people traveling a few days a year now.

  8. I earned EP on AA “the hard way,” only to have them pull out of my local airport. So I switched to Delta and earned Diamond “the hard way,” only to have them pull out of my local airport. By that point AA had returned and I switched back to AA. Now Delta has also returned, but I’m I’ve learned my lesson “the hard way.” Loyalty means crap — at least when it comes to living in a smaller market.

  9. Lots of us spent well during 2020 as well. I’ve spent enough for Platinum Pro with AA in 2021 already, but my miles aren’t even enough for Platinum. I’ve done EVERY extra miles, boost, and promotion that’s been made available too. Domestic FC travel just doesn’t add up to the miles these airlines want these days. We need international travel back.

  10. I qualified for Platinum Pro on AA the hard way for a second year in a row. I do like that my rolling EQD spend has kept me at the top of the priority list for upgrades within my status tier but I now have heavier competition from Executive Platinums as they are starting to return. If the threshold was the same as last year, I would easily clear hitting EP this year but airfares have been far too low in economy, which what I only get reimbursed for. As a result, I will far exceed the EQM requirement for EP (around 100k out of 80k) but will fall short in EQDs (around $9k out of $12k), leaving me feeling short changed in a way since EPs who haven’t flown since 2019 will still get higher priority over me. I could always pay the fare difference on my own if I really wanted/needed to be in first class but it’s nice feeling when that upgrade clears. Just as Gary and others have expressed, my hopes are that AA will give us elites who are earning it the hard way more perks or some kind of status boost beyond what was already done earlier this year.

  11. Right on, Gary. After taking 14 months off travel, I’ll hit EXP status with my AA flights tomorrow. Granted, that’s at this year’s reduced qualification level, but my scheduled flights through the end of the year would requalify me at the standard levels anyway.

    What do I get for this loyalty? In the last 5 months of travel (the last 2 months of it at Plat Pro level) I’ve been comp upgraded only twice, both times on a <500-mile route. Meanwhile, flights get cancelled, or delayed to the point I miss connections, and AA's contract of carriage claims they owe me nothing.

  12. @GringoLoco – on the whole card customers, and certainly those who fly + use the card + go through shopping portal etc are the most profitable / high margin customers…

  13. Hotel and Airline Rewards programs are not credit card rewards programs

    More points to be earned by credit card bonus and targeted promotions that booking airfares or rooms

  14. I find loyalty programs for airlines mostly unrewarding.Gold at Alaska, Premier yawn @ United etc
    I don’t get many upgrades as Exec Platinum so I no longer try to earn by flying at all anymore it.If I want First class and the price is reasonable I buy .Have lifetime Plat status anyway.My flights have been pretty horrible on AA.I cant fit into the lavatories to drain the lizard without crouching and hit my head routinely on the low ceiling & hit the side walls being tall & large.Many of the FAs are bitter and mean and I cant say I blame them one bit with a CEO like Crud Parker totally out of touch with customer reality/customer satisfaction.Hes ruined my once favorite airline & program.
    Hes destroyed everything hes ever put his hands on.Sad

  15. ‘Each program should strategize something extra for those who earn status based on 2021’s criteria rather than simply having their status extended, and should do something extra special for those who earn status based on ‘normal’ criteria as well.’

    Sure, if we all had a choice…I have not had the choice or opportunity to fly because I am international and had to abide by our quarantine…airport wasn’t even open for the longest time. Those in the US had it easier to achieve this goal. I have for the past 7 years earned my 1K status the hard way, by flying. Never used cc’s to get a bump as others have as well. I am a Million Miler as well with United…every one of my miles earned was by flying them and I did earn my 1K status for 2019. All my flights are international as well and many countries are still having issues with travel so I have had to put my business on hold for two years because of this.

    I appreciate that United has helped me continue with my 1K status and I will continue to fly United because of this.

  16. Absolutely. Start rewarding those who earned their status with their own spending ie “the real way” not because of their corporate overlord making them fly for work 365 days a year.

  17. @Kevin M — “I wish there were somehow a way to further differentiate between those using their own $ to travel and those using someone else’s.”

    I have had the very same wish, since *all* of my flying has been paid *totally* out-of-(my own)-pocket, so I’ll never be able to experience United’s Global Services, even though I flew and paid my own towards current 1K and Million Miler status … and not even a peep of acknowledgement from United when I crossed that first Million flown miles (so many years ago pre-pandemic)!

    Would anyone flying on those more lucrative corporate contracts ever experience such a lapse of acknowledgement from United, despite the fact that attainment of such a milestone is probably pretty meaningless to those corporate employees, since they never had to pay a personal penny towards that achievement, their actual flown miles in F/J notwithstanding?
    @Donna Dawson — “I appreciate that United has helped me continue with my 1K status …”

    Here’s a kicker for you — if I’m not mistaken, there is currently a promotion to let us “renew” our current 1K status for 2022 if we attain 3000 additional PQP by the end of November, but the issue for me is that I’ve *already* spent and attained nearly 3X that even before this promotion was issued, so someone who had flown *Zero* miles can now “renew” 1K by merely attaining 3000 PQP by the end of November, while I get *no* accommodations for prior flights and must *still* attain 3000 *more* PQP!

    I contacted United management about this and they *refuse* to provide any sort of pro-rated accommodations against this promotional amount for prior PQPs already paid for and attained, even when nearly 3X the required promotion amount! Does this seem fair? Profit and Greed, rather than customer considerations, *still* rule over everything, as usual — so much for engendering continuing customer loyalty, especially when other major airlines have already given blanket (ie, Totally Free) extensions of top-tier frequent flyer status into 2022!

  18. The distinction between real elites who pay for their status out of pocket (real elites) and those who get it only because someone else is paying should indeed be made.

    Or it’s time to tax ff miles earned when working as income.

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