Virgin America and JetBlue take Different Rhetorical Tacts With Their Elite Programs While American Makes Premium Cabin Investments

Over at Cathleen McCarthy has a piece on the new Virgin America and JetBlue elite status programs.

I recently flew JetBlue for the first time in a decade and didn’t mind it a bit, I was able to credit my mileage-earning to American AAdvantage (albeit not for status miles, which is cool because I had already re-qualified for Executive Platinum). Their offering is a decent mid-tier status equivalent, it doesn’t come with a first class upgrade benefit since the airline has no first class, but then most mid-tier elites don’t wind up with complimentary upgrades all that often anyway.

I covered their elite status a few weeks ago and called it ‘animal farm’ status, since the airline insisted on claiming that all of their customers were still equally important (some customers were just more equally important than others).

McCarthy’s piece hones in on this point:

“We didn’t want to go down the path of traditional carriers and create pods of customers that compete against each other and become elitist,” explains Phil Seward, head of loyalty at JetBlue. “What we’re doing is creating an opportunity to earn a badge of loyalty, to enhance the experience and make it easier for our most loyal customers.”

Some say that amounts to the same thing. “Of course it’s an elite program,” says Gary Leff, who blogs at View from the Wing. “I don’t think the essential feature of an elite program is having multiple levels. JetBlue is saying they have a subset of customers who are valuable to their business, and they want to provide recognition for those customers and make sure they’re being especially well-treated as a way of retaining them.”

I noted Virgin America’s elite program last month as well. And they’re taking a different tact, at least rhetorically:

Phil Seward, head of loyalty for Virginia America, embraces the elite concept and, in fact, claims that Elevate’s base-level status is more elite than the average airline’s. “We want to make sure we’re bringing back some exclusivity and cachet to what status really stands for,” Seward says. “We look at silver as being equal to mid-tier elite at larger airlines. We did that to make sure we’re offering a set of meaningful benefits.”

They have me throwing in a few other tidbits in the piece, such as that there’s become less differentiation between bottom-tier elites and co-branded credit card holders:

“First-level elite has basically become kind of a giveaway,” says Leff. “There’s less differentiation between whether you’re a cardholder or whether you’re a first-level elite.”

And also that I’m a big fan of the overall direction American Airlines seems to be headed, making investments in their premium product (although I’m impatient for those investments to arrive, I want to fly the new business class seat already and also the new Airbus JFK-Los Angeles and San Francisco transcon flights).

“American is aiming at a much more premium market than they have historically, hoping to attract higher-revenue fliers,” says Leff. “Having a greater percentage of premium seats on the new Airbus flights means you not only have a better chance of getting an upgrade but the upgrade itself is a better experience.”

Update: Contra the first quote cited above, of course, Dave Canty of course runs the TrueBlue program at JetBlue. Seward is with Virgin America only.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. Animal farm status I love it lol 🙂
    I too am excited about AAs direction. Now if they can just keep US Scare out of the kitchen!Or good knows who else from ruining Americas best frequent flyer program and its reasonable amount of redemption seats

  2. I agree with Graham, quite innovative that Jetblue and Virgin have the same guy running both of their loyalty programs.
    Gary take a second from copying your quotes into your blog and let the author of the article know of her faux pas.

  3. Having just flown AA in Economy on one of their 767-300’s to Europe, these “investments” can’t come soon enough, especially in the back of the aircraft. I flew AA a lot in the 1990s, and their Y cabin looks the same as it did then. The really sad part was the IFE box, connected to nothing (did AA EVER have personal IFE on these things?), which simply reduced the mediocre legroom to negligible levels.

    I know we tend to talk about the premium cabins a lot, but in Economy I was reminded why AA is a shadow of its former self, and why – loyalty program and competent staff aside – its former management needs to explain how they let it become what it has.

  4. For a not so frequent flyer who lives in LA and barely makes Advantage Gold Status (only elite qualification), the ability to ocassionally get upgraded to business class on their LAX-JFK routes is a wonderful experience. Config was 139 coach, 30 business, and 9 first. Now their new Airbus only offers 20 business class seats. Delays in delivery of the new Airbus on this route would not bother me at all.

Comments are closed.