How the Benefits of Airline Loyalty Have Become Useless!!

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“Gate lice” is a term airline employees use to refer to passengers who line up at the gate long before a particular flight begins to board. While some carriers instruct gate agents to scrub away such parasites using any verbal pyrethrin necessary, others seem to have accepted this phenomenon as fact, some going so far as to facilitate with numbered lanes that correspond to boarding groups.

One such carrier is United, with whom I hold Premier 1K status—the highest possible. Of course, I wouldn’t know this waiting to board most flights: The line for “prestigious” Group 1 is often longer than all the rest of the groups, sometimes all of them combined, to say nothing of how long upgrade lists can be or how crowded “VIP” lounges tend to get.

The ironic part about the degradation of elite benefits is that United—and most other U.S. carriers—have dramatically raised elite status qualification requirements. They’ve also made it much more difficult to earn frequent flyer miles in general, and to redeem them once you do, which has me (and thousands of other top-tier flyers, no doubt) scratching our heads: Is airline loyalty worth it anymore?

Delta as the Devil

To understand the current frequent flyer situation—and indeed, the airline industry climate in general—we need to go back in time about 15 years. Carriers were bleeding money, in part due to the events of 9/11, but mostly because of poor management, customer relations and, ultimately, sub-par onboard product and service.

In 2003, then-fledgling Delta Air Lines launched Song, a spinoff aimed at testing both the public reaction to and financial viability of a stylish, modern passenger experience, which to be fair was not entirely different from JetBlue, still in its early years at this time.

Song fell off the charts soon after Delta filed for bankruptcy protection in 2005, but was arguably the precursor the dramatic improvements the carrier made during and after its 2008 merger with Northwest Airlines, since when it has almost indisputably become the most stylish and admired of the three major U.S carriers.

Unfortunately, Delta has also been a pioneer in not-as-melodious ways. In 2014, it became the first carrier to introduce a revenue requirement for elite qualification in its SkyMiles program, a move it one-upped the following year by tying all mileage earning to ticket price and, worse, devaluing the miles themselves to the point where members now refer to them as “SkyPesos.” Not surprisingly, United and American soon followed suit, although Delta’s requirements remain the most stringent, in spite of it belonging to the globe’s least prestigious airline alliance.

The Case for Foreign Airlines

To be sure, while flying Delta is a noticeably more pleasant experience than either of its domestic competitors, it pales in comparison to most Asian, Middle Eastern and even European airlines. Interestingly, the main incentive U.S. carriers once offered was their frequent flyer plans (foreign airlines have long employed revenue-based earning schemes), which begs a broader question: Is there any reason for international travelers to fly America, Delta or United, even occasionally?

The behavior of the so-called “Big 3” suggests not. In response to the growing market share of the “Middle Eastern 3” (Emirates, Etihad and Qatar), whose onboard product and service are literally decades ahead of their U.S. counterparts, Delta et al have resorted to legal bullying and P.R. smear campaigns, rather than addressing the fundamental deficiencies that have forced travelers at every price segment to look elsewhere for air transport.

Indeed, while premium-class tickets on most full-service foreign airlines cost significantly more than on U.S. carriers, fares in economy are similar and sometimes even cheaper. The economy-class experience is so much better on, say, ANA than it is on United, or on Finnair compared to American, which leaves few reasons to continue flying U.S. airlines for any reason, the devaluation of their frequent flyer programs notwithstanding.

Credit Cards and Travel Hacking

Whether or not elite-status tiers remain as overcrowded as they are today, one thing is certain: As time passes, your chances of achieving elite status decrease as dramatically as the quality of the benefits that status bestows.

The good news is that, for the time being anyway, many travel credit cards can help you fill the gap, both in terms of elite-type perks, as well as for earning miles in general. The American Express Platinum Card, for example, affords you lounge access and discounted enrollment in Global Entry™, which comes with TSA Pre✓ expedited security screening. It also comes with a sign-up bonus as high as 100,000 Membership Rewards points, which can be transferred 1-for-1 to a variety of airlines mileage programs, and allows you to earn between 1-3 points per dollar spent on all purchases.

Dozens of other credit cards boast similar benefits, from general-purpose travel cards like Chase Sapphire and Barclaycard Arrival Plus, to branded airline credit cards for American, Delta and United. While none of these will actually give you elite status (and I still have my reservations about travel hacking in general), they make for an adequate stop-gap.

The Bottom Line

As earning elite status and even frequent flyer miles becomes exponentially more difficult, the benefits associated with doing so have become diluted almost to point of meaninglessness. At the same time, onboard product and service—for U.S. carriers, anyway—has stagnated or even become worse, in spite of years of industry profitability.

While it’s unlikely that being loyal to an airline will ever be as lucrative for air travelers as it once was, we can maximize our comfort in the skies by flying foreign airlines whenever possible and shield ourselves from losses by choosing our travel credit cards wisely.

In life as with (gate) lice, prevention is preferable to treatment.

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