Why Airline Elite Status Matters: You Get Home (in Comfort) Despite Delays and Cancellations

Sunday night I flew home from Colorado Springs. That’s the most important sentence of this post. I actually managed to fly home — despite delays, two mechanicals, a change of flights, re-routing to a different airport, and a change of aircraft. Oh, and did I mention my upgrades cleared all the way through?

  • Inbound aircraft was delayed. American’s website was showing only 15 minutes, which would have given me 35 minutes in Dallas. That didn’t look realistic.
  • Aircraft made up time enroute to Colorado Springs. We boarded and would have been on our way 25 minutes late. A 25 minute connection would be fine, my onward flight was only supposed to be 6 gates away.
  • But the flight went mechanical. We had a flat tire. Fortunately there was a spare on hand. We deplaned, and posted a new departure time — an hour’s delay.
  • My connecting flight was delayed, too. So I might still make it. I rang up American’s Executive Platinum desk and they protected me on a later connecting flight. Several options were sold out, but I grabbed a late flight into another airport ‘just in case’ and could always stand by for something better.
  • Since there was a chance I could still make my connection, American didn’t re-issue my ticket. At that point I had reservations on two different flights home.
  • When they got the wheel off they saw the brakes fused together. This was going to be more than an hour’s delay. They predicted two. It turned out to be six.
  • The gate agent announced that there were still seats left on the next flight out of Colorado Springs – but not nearly enough for everyone. They recommended everyone call the 800 number.
  • I called the Executive Platinum line, no wait on hold of course, and grabbed a seat on the next flight out of Colorado Springs, connecting to my ‘backup’ flight in Dallas.
  • Upgrades cleared for both flights.
  • Once in Dallas my flight home – the last flight – went mechanical. They determined there was too much condensation in a window pain, it would have to be changed. They swapped out aircraft and sent an entire gate’s worth of passengers to the other side of the terminal. They had to move all of the luggage and also transfer catering.

I got home, to a different airport, nearly six hours later. But I got on the flight, all in upgraded first class. And I was aided all along the way by my status — a willingness to double book me, no hold times let me jump the queue for that next flight out of Colorado Springs.

It’s good to have airline elite status.

Now, if I didn’t have top tier status I wouldn’t have flown those two flights in front. But any status in a storm is helpful — you get the telephone hold queues, you have priority on the standby lists. During irregular operations it can be the difference between getting home or to a meeting, and getting stranded for a couple of days.

I believe there’s huge value in top tier elite status, and there’s huge value in having some status. And many non-frequent flyers can approximate having some status, more or less, since most airlines give out perks for signing up for their co-branded credit cards. Frequently these cards come with free checked bags and priority boarding, the latter meaning that you don’t have to gate check your luggage. That’s the only real benefit, to me, of priority boarding but it’s huge.

I’m not sure I see the benefit of mid-tier status, although you earn more bonus miles and are higher up in the queue. And there are incremental benefits like that sometimes include lower change fees, such as confirming extra legroom seats in advance and not just at check-in. But there’s a huge difference between “being a nobody” with the airline and having some status, and there’s a huge difference having top tier status.

I don’t think having status makes sense for a very infrequent flyer, though someone who travels 15,000 to 20,000 miles a year should probably get their airline’s co-brand card.

And I don’t think it makes sense to be a ‘mileage runner’ — except that an incremental flight to get to top tier status is hugely worth it. If you fly 85,000 miles or more a year, and your airline gives you top tier at 100,000, finding a way to eke out 15,000 more miles is probably a good idea.

After getting rebooked coming home from Colorado Springs, I overheard a woman saying she wouldn’t get to Cleveland until 5pm. The next day. I was grateful not to be her (well, largely because her destination was Cleveland, but also because she didn’t have status).

In the end I didn’t mind the delay so much, I wound up getting switched over on the same flight as Live From a Lounge, and onto the flight that AAdvantageGeek was already on. (In fact, I stole his upgrade.) And we wound up chatting in the gate area with Frequent Miler, who was flying out on United. There have been worse delays. Thanks to status, and good conversations with friends.

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. Amen. Throw in a toddler or two and waiting to avoid being indefinitely being stuck with them at an airport and you get why status is now super high on my priority list as well. The improved seat is secondary, but the help when either things go wrong, or when your plans change is extremely valuable. Glad you guys made it home!

  2. What can also make a different during IRROPs is access to the airline club lounge (provided there is one in the airport, of course). I’ve been in situations where it looked like the line to get rebooked was 1-2 hrs long… while the line inside a club has been maybe 10 min.

  3. I have been travelling for years and can only think of one time when I missed my flight – they changed the flight time and I didn’t get the message, so when I arrived at the gate the door was shut. No status here, but I don’t seem to run into this problem. Guess I am just lucky!

  4. Do you think it’s better to have status and buy an economy ticket versus having no status in an airline but buying the business/first class seat? Which passenger gets better treatment in case of a delay?

  5. We saw them dealing with the mechanical while leaving COS…didn’t realize you guys would be stuck there that long!

    Glad to see at least there were friends to wait out the delays with along the way.

    Great to see you again this weekend, Gary!

  6. Glad you made it relatively easily, Gary. But a better title for this story might have been, “Why Airline Elite Status Matters on Some Airlines”. Had you been 1K on United (as I am), and as you can find by perusing various horror stories at Flyertalk, even under less trying circumstances on United you would have been much less likely to have a happy ending. More likely, in the process of rebooking you they might have canceled your entire itinerary.

    On a more positive note, my experience as an Executive Platinum on American under similar circumstances has been much more positive. For all I know, Delta and Southwest could provide similarly good treatment. But even elites on United are at the mercy of an antiquated reservations system, personnel poorly trained in how to make the best of it (though there is so much even the best-trained staff can sometimes do), and most of all a management pretty much indifferent to making improvements in these vital areas.

  7. Glad you made it home! It’s worth sharing also that for those of us without status, you can greatly eliminate hold times by using social media to your advantage. It won’t help with being higher on the priority list, but might be enough to confirm a seat before someone else gets it.

  8. One of the best reasons to go for elite with the airline you prefer to fly and not solely based on points earning possibilities!

    I’m 1k with united and a plat at delta, and as difficult as it is to use skypesos, it’s reaccommodation during irrops that keeps me elite with delta. Of course, I’m loving the redemption value and GPUs of mileageplus, but I find delta to be much better at the actual service side of things.heck, they even rebooked me on the SQ ewr-sin nonstop J flight last winter when I missed a connection due to weather (on an upgraded coach ticket no less). Glad to hear you’re having good experiences with AA too!

  9. Would status on a different One World airline have helped? Or is lounge access the only benefit that you get as a OW member when flying with a member airline?

  10. @EFG – Besides lounge access, as an AA Platinum or Exec. Platinum, you get priority boarding (which means first dibs on the overhead bins) on OW airlines and you can check in using the Business Class or First counters – which is a huge advantage in some airports. I recently bypassed about 100 people standing in line to check in. But as Gary noted, being able to call the AA EP phone line to resolve a problem is a huge advantage.

  11. @ Gary:

    “If you fly 85,000 miles or more a year, and your airline gives you top tier at 100,000, finding a way to eke out 15,000 more miles is probably a good idea.”

    15,000 miles seems like a big amount to Mileage Run for in my opinion. (UA has Premier at 75K PQM’s, so you are in fairly good shape even without achieving 1K.)

    15,000 x .05 = $750, plus more importantly it takes a fair amount of time.

    I would put the threshold lower, and work hard to figure out how to get there if I was only 7 or 8 thousand mileas away from 100K.

  12. Cue the Chris Elliott article denouncing elite status as unfair to the masses. Lol

  13. “Once in Dallas my flight home – the last flight – went mechanical. They determined there was too much condensation in a window pain,”

    I am sure it was a pain but it should say “windowpane”

  14. @Lark , with AA you get 8 unlimited SVUs. That’s worth 15k milage run for ExPlat. United Premier wouldn’t be.

  15. A couple things.

    First, if it is worthwhile to mileage run for top tier elite status (since you’ll fly a lot anyway), is it really worth it to mileage run for bottom tier status (is the benefit of some status enough to MR)?

    Second, if everyone was in COS, why didn’t AA reschedule some people to fly out of Denver and bus/van them up there? DEN is an hour and 15 min North, and I’d have driven with a car load of travelers if it meant getting home that day.

    Third, EFG raises a great point. How would status on another airline in the same alliance help in avoiding the queue during domestic irregular operations?

  16. When we were talking on Sunday and I made the offer to take you to an outstanding Taiwanese noodle house the next time you found yourself on a long overnight in Dallas, I didn’t think it was almost going to happen so soon!

    Glad you made it home and that the upgrades cleared.

  17. This has been true for me (AA EXP) everywhere but DFW, where the GAs seem to go out of their way to make sure I don’t get an upgrade after MX. Rationally,I know it is just because of the hub, but couple that with general rudeness, and I just don’t have a positive impression of DFW.

  18. what they do for non elite at aa: (though i used to be a platinum three years ago)

    * arrive to gate in the stupidly designed miami airport terminal 15 minutes prior to departure. gate is already closed and locked.
    * no last call for boarding was ever made.
    * speak with next gate’s attendant. “sorry – i can’t do anything”
    * speak with the phone agent: “sorry – i’d have to charge you two $150 change fees plus the difference in fare.”
    * speak with the supervisor – sorry, because you booked award tickets, I can’t reconfirm you on a later flight without a $75 per ticket fee or else “they’ll fire me”
    * email aa to complain about all of this – get an email back 2 days later from a non replyable address that they’ve done nothing wrong.

    Any company that is supposed to serve the public that doesn’t even have a method for a human being to speak with a supervisor except over EMAIL is not really a company that serves the public.

  19. @Chris B, last year I made a mistake of mileage running for the lowest (silver) status. It’s not worth it – easier to get most of the benefits just by getting a co-branded CC. As for the upgrades, you chances are slim to none anyways. In fact, I did get upgraded once but still don’t feel it was worth the MR.

  20. Gary, glad you made it! And no question about the value of the top tier status if one can make it.
    But I have another question and actually it could be a good one for a blog as I have not seen this information anywhere. So 6 hours late and the airline is at fault – did you get any compensation from them? It would be really nice to have a breakdown of what to expect/ask for by the airline and the length of delay.

  21. I find mid-tier status with United is well worth it for early access to E+ and access to Star Alliance lounges.

  22. Will run for *A Gold status…and E+ for free which is nice for the 2 flights a year to SIN from the East Coast.

    That being said, flying out of the CLE hublet most of the time, I can get CPU’d at a UA Gold level at a pretty good rate too.

  23. I think running for bottom tier status is valuable. I’m a US Silver and I find that I’m getting upgraded a lot on my connecting flights, due to the fact that I fly out of a smaller airport that does 0 connecting service. I also make good use of the Preferred Desk when I need to call. At the very least, I get a free bag and can use the priority check in and security lanes. That, to me, is worth getting to 25k miles per year when I’d ordinarily do about 20.

    I thought about running for Gold this year since I have a lot of travel planned, but the incremental benefit wasn’t worth it to me. Same for Platinum. Now, if I were 15k miles short of Chairmans, I’d probably go for it.

    Basically, I’d run for bottom tier or top tier if I were close, but I’d not make much of an effort for mid-tier. I do think having some status is very valuable.

    To the poster that asked if it’s better to have status in coach or be a kettle in F/J, that’s a tough call. On a domestic flight, it’s hard to find an F product worth paying for, so I’d rather be in Y with status. For TATL, I’d rather be a paid J than status Y, since odds are I don’t have status on the airline I’m flying anyway, and most status isn’t getting you upgraded on a TATL, either. As far as lounges go, you’re probably even as a paid J vs *G.

  24. I used to be completely against Elite status. But now that I am a lowly Gold on AA, I am sold. Sameday standby, main cabin extra (while it lasts), and priority aaccess security (at DCA, TSA precheck is in the wrong terminal) all make a huge difference and can’t be obtained via the credit card. Plus, the occasional upgrade on odd flights (like BWI/MIA) are fun. I pay for most of my tickets.. so I often choose cheaper flights and then same-day standby on flights that are more expensive. I’ve only gotten screwed once and that was when I was with a friend who the agent let us standby together (Even though he wasn’t elite and should have paid a change fee). His non-status brought us to the bottom of the list. But I’ve gotten great value out of gold.. and yes.. they do treat you better. They actually kicked some people out of the emergency exit row for me on a flight.

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