USA Today Columnist Wants to Ban Frequent Flyer Programs, Blames Them For Everything Wrong With Travel

Forget about bad opinions, for over 15 years Christopher Elliott has been writing columns that get their facts wrong. His pieces haven’t gotten any better as the years have gone on.

He keeps making weak arguments that attempt to use air travel as a vehicle for his claims about social inequality (even when the details don’t work, especially since loyalty programs give customers access to perks that would normally only be available to the wealthy) and telling readers to quit frequent flyer programs for years without correcting his errors or updating his facts.

I ought to be immune to what I consider to be consistent hack work after all these years, yet his latest USA Today diatribe, in which he calls for ending frequent flyer programs, deserves a special place in the annals of garbage. It’s titled, “Frequent flyer programs have become increasingly elitist. Is it time to end them?”

If you’re looking for the best frequent flyer program to join, maybe you’re asking the wrong question. Because the best frequent flyer program might be none at all – at least when it comes to air travel.

His case against the programs? He lays out:

  • “Program members must pledge their business to an airline or make all of their purchases on a branded credit card.” Customers aren’t required to do either. You can join a program, and earn a rebate for travel and for other activity, without giving the airline most of your business. In fact most consumers are members of more than one loyalty program. Moreover there’s no requirement to put all purchases on an airline co-brand card.

    The best advice is for a non-elite frequent flyer to get the airline card of the carrier they fly most (if it’s more than just a couple times a year), for the free checked bags and earlier boarding and in United’s case for the couple of annual lounge passes. Then put spending on a bank-issued card that earns points that convert to a variety of different frequent flyer programs, put the miles where you need them when you’re ready to redeem.

  • “The points lose value over time or expire.” Delta miles don’t expire. JetBlue points don’t expire. United miles no longer expire. And for U.S. programs whose miles expire it’s super easy to keep them from expiring.

    Miles do lose value over time. I’ve been explaining the phenomenon since 2003. What that means is that miles aren’t a good store of value over time, a great place to save for travel years into the future. You need to earn miles, use them, and then earn more — make sure to spend miles under the same award scheme in place when you earned them. Then you aren’t harmed by inflation. Elliott doesn’t give this advice, instead he suggests you abstain from miles altogether and forfeit the rebate you would earn which even if devalued has value.

  • “[T]hese schemes have deepened the divide between the “haves” and “have-nots”: people without status who receive the worst service and pay outrageous fees.” Is it true that the divide has deepened between those with status and those without? Elites used to get upgraded much more frequently. Twenty years ago airlines used to sell just ~ 10% of domestic first class seats. Now it’s 50% – 70%, so upgrades are far more rare. That puts the lie to the claim that “[t]he gap between elites and non-elites has never been wider, or more shameful” when fewer elites than ever are receiving upgrades.

    If Elliott wanted to talk about United not allowing customers without checked bags to check in online when they’re on a basic economy fare (making them wait in long lines instead) or about how American Airlines will no longer put non-elite coach passengers on another airline when their flights are disrupted (without special supervisor approval), then he might be able to build a case. But he’d have to know something about air travel to do that.

The Loyalty Scam?

Elliott says that “[a]irlines want you to believe they treat all of their loyalty program members like [a ConciergeKey member]. But only a fraction of passengers are real VIPs.” There’s nowhere on the United website that lays out the perks of general membership or lower-tiered status, that says those members will be treated like a Global Services member. Nowhere on the American website does it list the benefits of AAdvantage or Gold status that include Cadillac tarmac transfers. Indeed there’s very little mention of the Delta 360° program at Delta.com.

We should take care not to “mindlessly give all of our business to an airline” (I try not to mindlessly do anything) but is it really true that members face “blackout dates” (days you aren’t permitted to use your miles) rather than capacity controls (flights that cost more miles than others)? And as for “high fees, and severely limited award travel availability” those issues may even ease with status accrual.

One problem may be that Elliott conflates the rebate (earn and burn) portion of a program with its recognition (elite status) component. He wants customers not to give their business to strive for elite status, but then complains about the treatment general members receive without status.

Indeed, even he admits that “extremely frequent business travelers…might as well receive credit” and suggests it’s everyone else that comes out behind.

Are Frequent Flyer Programs the Downfall of Airlines?

Never mind that it’s the frequent flyer programs keeping airlines flying. All of that air service – often at a loss – makes sense because it’s subsidized by the profits from co-branded credit cards.

Perhaps all that’s bad with the airlines is because of loyalty programs?

Is it a coincidence that the rise of loyalty programs has coincided with the fall of the airline industry’s reputation? Airlines used to be the gold standard for customer service – at least in the United States.

The number one thing that determines whether a passenger feels like they had a good flight is if they had an empty seat next to them. That makes the service seem better, the food (if any) taste better.

The modern frequent flyer program launched shortly after deregulation, in order to drive consumer preference for what was mostly a commodity product. If they had a preference for an airline’s miles they might wait around a few hours for a less convenient flight.

The correlation here, though, is with deregulation. Prior to 1978 the federal government set prices and told airlines where they were allowed to fly. Airlines had plenty of empty seats, but the government ensured they made money by keeping prices high.

What’s happened in air travel is that it has become small-d democratic, accessible to far more Americans than it used to be. That means full planes. It also means that airlines can compete on price instead of having to compete for profitable business by offering each passenger more. There was even once a Civil Aeronautics Board discussion on whether they needed to regulate the thickness of sandwiches, because given the high prices airlines were finding ways to compete for business – and the CAB’s job was to prevent that.

Elliott suggests though that loyalty programs are the reason for classes of service:

Perhaps the reason for our collective suffering is in the front of the plane. There, you’ll see the elites in lie-flat seats enjoying the royal treatment. You’ll also find the wannabes in their “premium” economy seats, hoping for an upgrade. They think they’ve found the best frequent flyer program.

Look back and there we are, the rest of the passengers! The generous legroom we once had in economy class has been removed and redistributed to those with elite status and the one or two passengers who paid for the premium seats. We used to be able to check a bag without paying extra. Now, only frequent flyers with enough status can do that.

Here Elliott conflates domestic and international, not just recognition and reward. But it’s not frequent flyer programs that have caused airlines to offer premium seats, those are the most profitable parts of the aircraft on a per-square foot basis.

Meanwhile on domestic flights it’s not just coach that’s been squeezed, on American Airlines we’ve seen a reduction in space in Main Cabin Extra and also in first class as the carrier has squeezed seats onto its Boeing 737 MAX, Boeing 737-800, and now Airbus A321 aircraft.

And airlines aren’t charging for checked bags so they can waive those charges for elites. They’re charging them either because of the $4.9 billion they report annually in those fees or because fees are exempt from the 7.5% excise tax on domestic tickets — baggage fees are incentivized by the tax code.

Without loyalty programs of course airlines would be less profitable, would fly fewer routes, and likely charge more. So it’s hard to blame frequent flyer programs for customers being “squeezed into tiny seats, served by disgruntled flight attendants, they are treated worse than cargo.” And contra Elliott who says “[n]o wonder airline customer satisfaction scores are circling the drain” and while I’m not a fan of J.D. Power generally their survey would say otherwise and so would Delta’s net promoter scores.

Elliott’s Loyalty Program Advice

After telling you that you shouldn’t join programs at all, indeed that the programs ought to be abolished, he then offers “tricks for winning the loyalty game.”

Barring federal regulation, it’s unlikely airlines will dismantle their loyalty programs anytime soon. If you can’t quit, how do you at least not become a sucker?

  1. “Find a program that plays fewer games with you.” Elliott’s advice? Delta SkyMiles and Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards. It’s not clear whether his advice is for elite status or redemption ability. Southwest, the least class-focused of the largest U.S. airlines, still gets criticized here for “widening a class divide.” He never tells us how, though perhaps it’s not having to check in 24 hours in advance to get an earlier boarding position.

  2. “Sign up for a better card.” I thought he might suggest becoming a loyalty program free agent with bank-issued cards that let you transfer to your choice of frequent flyer program, but no he suggest cash back. That’s fine for someone who is only ever going to travel domestically, but he doesn’t customize the advice or caveat it to suggest whom it’s good for – telling you that the best strategy depends on your reward goals.

  3. “Use your loyalty as leverage.” This one blew my mind, for someone that wants a classless society he thinks you should become a ‘DYKWIA’ and exercise your privilege:

    “Demand they take care of you,” says frequent flyer Travis Chambers, who owns a video production company in Los Angeles. “Play hardball.” When customer service gets bad (and it often does), use your loyalty and status to negotiate better treatment. If necessary, he adds, “threaten to leave.”

Elliott can’t seem to remember to conclude his column without contradicting his entire screed about the nature of elite status programs by telling you to use yours … in a way that’s least likely to get results.

Indeed, next to “hang up, call back” the most important trick to getting what you want from an airline – or really any large corporation where customer service agents feel like cogs in a wheel – is to just be nice.

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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Comments

  1. What we need is a very strong U.S. Consumer Protection Bureau with effective leadership and the ability and real teeth (just as we need strong and enforced environmental regulations.

  2. Hard to know even where to begin here. ““The points lose value over time…” You know what else loses value over time? Money. Does Elliott want to ban money too?

    At the end of the day, I’ve come to terms with Elliott. He is a shameless dolt, but I benefit from people listening to his bad advice (less competition for seats; less pressure to devalue if fewer people earn and hold balances). So I guess keep at it Elliott!!!

  3. I agree by and large with the arguments in this post. An argument I take issue with is:

    “You need to earn miles, use them, and then earn more — make sure to spend miles under the same award scheme in place when you earned them. Then you aren’t harmed by inflation.”

    One-size-fits-all advice is usually wrong. If the “earn and burn” philosophy were valid, there would be no savings accounts, which these days don’t come close to matching the inflation rate. The rate of burning should depend on the rate of earning and the rewards goals of each person. Most people don’t live for miles and points and therefore earn points and miles slowly while travel goals may require a large number of points or miles. Those folks need to “save” and their savings are subject to inflation losses. But saving is the only way to reach their goal. Earn and burn is fine for those who earn at a high rate and expect that their ability to earn at a high rate will continue.

  4. Much of what you say is true, but as a FF who travels enough to get the nicer perks, the way airlines treat these programs often hurts themselves. You’ve mentioned a couple: removing conveniences that are zero-cost (like online check-in) to increase the misery of non-elites. Or take IROPS, where legacy carriers are supposed to be better. They are — for me. The poor schmucks with no status might as well be on a LoCo: wait hours in a line for someone to rebook them, while I’m already on my way. The argument is that elites travel a lot and are more likely to suffer disruptions over a year, and I know that’s true. Yet for a non-elite, what makes enduring a cancellation worth flying a legacy carrier?
    Loyalty bonuses that make sense: perk for credit cards, like free luggage, benefits for people who fly a lot that make their time in transit more efficient.
    Those that hurt the airline: creating additional suffering purely to differentiate elites. Thinking that the value put in for elites is a value for all travelers. Complications that reduce the airline’s efficiency. Boarding, for example: people who fly regularly generally know how to get on a plane quickly. Putting them on first makes sense, since they won’t be blocking the aisle. I’m on and on my seat without mucking around. People who have a credit card will probably board as fast as everyone else, so why have 11 boarding groups, which just makes a mess and slows everything down?

  5. Typical liberal left-winger equality to all like Berni and Liz W are spouting to all the braindead out therein Demo land

  6. Don’t think they should be banned but there should be at least some government intervention since airlines are basically printing their own currency. At a minimum, if there is no saver availability, you should be able to redeem your miles at some fixed price (1 cpm or something).

  7. No we in the cheap seats do not subsidize the people up front, and they don’t subsidize us. The airline differentiates services to maximize profits by offering different types of travelers fares and perks that have that effect. Sure they make plenty of mistakes, as does anyone.

    Really you are better off just ignoring Elliott when he writes on things he is completely ignorant of.
    I earn a middle class salary, almost never travel on business, and have used miles to visit over 50 countries in the last three years. Absolutely impossible without the knowledge I gain from this and other sources about how to make loyalty programs work for you. Almost anything worth doing well is going to take some time and effort to learn, and this is no exception.

  8. It’s like Comrade Bernie railing against choice when confronted with 75 different deodorants at the drugstore. BAN THEM! Let some smart guy in DC choose three “common sense” options!

    As he flies around a private jet among his 3 or 4 houses, denigrating me for using a ******* straw..

    A substantial part of my family’s net worth is due to points/miles/cashback/status earned over 20+ years.

    You just cannot pay attention to people of limited intelligence. Waste of time.

  9. This did leave me with a jaw drop (somewhat literally):

    “Perhaps the reason for our collective suffering is in the front of the plane. There, you’ll see the elites in lie-flat seats enjoying the royal treatment. You’ll also find the wannabes in their “premium” economy seats, hoping for an upgrade. They think they’ve found the best frequent flyer program.”

    If I’m in “premium economy”, I’ve paid to sit there and I’m not “hoping” for an upgrade.

    He’s totally missed the part about how if one doesn’t like “cramped coach”, one can pay for a bigger seat.

  10. Gary, I’ve been a long-time reader of your column, but I don’t think I’ve ever commented before. The advice that Elliott gives is in direct contradiction to my personal experience. Thanks to you and a couple of other bloggers, about four years ago I started collecting miles in different programs, mainly United and Chase Ultimate Rewards. Thanks to having a family business that needs to spend about $250k per year on some fixed budget items, we have been able to take our family of five on business and first class flights we would never have been able to afford otherwise. In the past four years we’ve taken trips to Iceland/Scotland, the UK, France, Italy, and Norway, all five of us, all in flat-bed business or first. Using the advice you’ve given we have been places we never, ever would have gone for far less money than economy fights. So for us, Elliott’s comments about inequality are absolutely backward. We’re middle class people using the rules that the airlines and credit card issues have made to our advantage to travel in ways we never dreamed of. So, thank you. Your articles matter.

  11. I often wonder how Elliott has that gig, many of his articles are just so wrong.

    Also, seems like he’s pulling a Trump by trying to divide people against each other, lol

  12. There is a reason I read anything Mr. Elliott writes with a full pound of Morton iodized salt. I’m not sure how his mind became stuck in abstraction mode — to be generous in speaking of his mind at all. I will continue to read his columns, though, for the same reason I read anything I might find disagreeable or factually incorrect — you have to know what the other side is saying so you can educate yourself and others to the truth.

  13. @Matthew Campbell

    I used to read Elliott’s blog, and tried engaging him once or twice. I’ve also seen other people whose screen names I haven’t recognized from the typical FF space write and say that they’ve received benefit from these programs.

    Based on what Elliott says (or doesn’t say) in his writings and responses, he can only be one of two things: 1) Very dumb or otherwise not capable of complex or nuanced thought, or 2) He’s actually reasonably bright, but has chosen this as his “shtick” for generating page views and $, knowing full well there isn’t much truth to it.

    But he can’t even put together a properly slanted piece. It would be one thing if he put together a slanted piece that was logically consistent, but he contradicts himself six ways from Sunday when he writes. So perhaps he’s just dumb?

  14. Not sure why he thinks FF programs should be banned. Unless you have top level status I don’t think they really give you much more benefit than if you had a credit card with them. I only use FF programs to store up my miles for redemptions. If someone is a frequent enough customer of an airline to hit top level status then they should get some benefit. I don’t see that taking anything away from the rest of the customers. Unless someone lives in a hub city I don’t think it makes much sense to go for status unless prices are always the same as or lower than competitors. This guy is talking about some sort of class divide or whatever, but even without a FF program there is going to be those who pay more money for better products and those who don’t have the money to do so. Therefore abolishing FF programs will not change it at all.

  15. @Michael I agree with you. There should be some basic regulation of FF programs, so that if you give your business to an airline they can not turn around and fly with empty seats vs making the space available for saver awards.

  16. @ toomanybooks — What the hell are you talking about? I’m no Bernie fan, but he had the lowest net-worth of all Senators until a few years ago, and now he has a net worth that is among the lowest of those in the Senate. A couple million is what you need to retire confortably, if you haven’t gotten the memo.

  17. One wonders how Mr. Elliott manages to keep his job, based upon the many astute comments here. Wait, he’s employed at USA Today, where the reading level is geared towards the most reading-challenged. “Life is like a box of chocolates”.

  18. You only really know the quality of a newspaper’s writing and editing when you read an article about a subject you know a lot about. If that article has the facts wrong, assume that all of the articles about other matters on which you need to rely upon their assertions are equally wrong. Conclusion: USA Today is hot garbage.

  19. Sounds like a typical MSM shill, hack, paid to print the airlines’ thinking. When the last big airline mergers took place leaving the ‘big three’ I said that step by step these survivors will either get rid of FFPs or diminish their benefit rendering them unattractive to useless. The big carriers want out of FFPs. I think that if they could collude globally they’d all agree to get rid of FFPs.

  20. It has been a very long time since I picked up a free USA Today at a hotel I may be staying at. The writers are nothing more then SJW hacks.

  21. @Steve K – say want you want about Elliott (I certainly do) but he’s not “print[ing] the airlines’ thinking” here and they definitely do not “want out of FFPs” because those programs are super profitable based on selling miles to banks.

  22. Good morning, Gary!!!

    Glad to see the commentariat is awake and loud.
    I can’t find who uttered the following quotes (pretty sure arch-conservative Linda Ellerbe can be attributed one of them): “USAToday, nothing left on the fingers, or the brain.” Or just calling it “McPaper.”

    Seriously folks? Who has ever read USAToday and considered it “The Paper?” (Insert “So I Married an Axe Murderer” meme here with Mike Myers talking to his mom about the “facts” she gleans from The Weekly World News.)

    The column was good for a laugh, and as a couple posters above noted, within a single column, a few contradictions. FFP’s are hardly the root cause of American Airlines Project Oasis, regardless of the obligations carried on the books. As you’ve noted on so many occasions, airline profitability relies HEAVILY on sales of miles to the banks. And the recent contract extension signed by AmEx and Delta, the receipts will be gross, indeed!

  23. This poor Elliott fellow seems like:
    1. His elevator doesn’t stop on all floors.
    2. He is a couple of cans short of a six-pack
    3. He is not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

  24. Here’s my take: as someone who became a frequent flier for business less than 4 years ago, I can UNDERSTAND the sentiment. The feeling that an airplane is now just a cattle car and any possible comfort is just another extra fee.

    But being on the other side now…I see that non-frequent travelers make WAY too big a deal over minor, and rather common, airline delays/issues. I fly close to 100 segments a year and have substantial delays maybe 5-8 times? Minor delays maybe another 10% of the time (which we usually make the time back up in the air because of padded schedules). I have had a bag lost once (a car seat, which they gave me a loaner and returned mine to me within 6 hours).

    If you fly twice a year and one of these things happens to you, you shouldn’t, but you will, turn into a “NEVER FLYING XYZ AGAIN!” type of passenger, when those of us who do it weekly just quietly head back to our chair at the gate and pull out our laptop to pass the time…

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