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.