I have been a rabid collector of frequent flyer miles since I first entered the workforce back in 2000. When I first started traveling for work I flew with Delta and found every possible way to accumulate miles, from the conventional to the slightly ridiculous. But it paid off. I had status and within a few years enough miles to create a dream trip to Thailand – in Business class of course. In later years I refined my strategies, changed airlines but recently I’ve come to a sad realization. In their ever increasing need to nickel and dime even the most loyal of customers, airlines have completely destroyed the concept of loyalty.
For the last 8 years or so US Airways has been my airline of choice, mostly due to their presence in the DC area and because they were a member of the Star Alliance. Which alliance an airline belongs to is of incredible importance, in fact that’s more important to me than the airline itself. I’ve had what is called Gold status, a middle tier of status, for a number of years and the perks that were associated with it were important to me. I fly to Europe a lot and the free lounge access afforded to me almost wherever I went became a perk that I couldn’t imagine traveling without. But that’s all gone now, those halcyon days of flying awesomeness are I fear a thing of the past, to be displayed in a museum next to the original Boeing 707 and Concord.
When US Airways and American began the process of merging, I was left in a quandary. The airline I was devoted to moved to the One World Alliance, a group of airlines that while good, don’t benefit me as much as the Star Alliance members. Luckily, living in the Washington area, I had another option – United. United makes more sense for me as a preferred airline; DC is one of their hubs and they’re a Star Alliance member. I decided to pursue a status match with them and start my new flying life with an airline I wasn’t entirely sure about, but was willing to try. Turns out I had reasons for those misgivings and I regretted my decision almost immediately.
It’s my fault for not reading the fine print, but the details of the status match did not work out in my favor. United agreed to honor my status with US Airways and gave me Star Alliance Gold for a period of 90 days. During that time I had to earn enough miles (12,500) in order to stay at that status level. That in itself wasn’t a problem, I flew a lot more than that with Star Alliance members in those 90 days. But the fine print said I had to fly ONLY with United in order to meet that threshold and that was the problem. I fly to a variety of different destinations around the world. That means nearly every flight is with a different carrier. Sure, I try to keep my flights within the Star Alliance, but due to the nature of my work there is no way I can fly with only one airline, all of the time. So while I earned double the threshold amount with partner airlines, at the end of those 90 days United mercilessly stripped me of my flying status, throwing me back into the aviation abyss – a place without status. I’ve had status of some form with airlines since the early 2000s, and I wasn’t at all happy about losing it. But I guess I learned some lessons. (As a quick side note, Gold status during that time was nonexistent as no partner lounge allowed me access without a physical card. So I received zero benefit from the status match.)
I learned that retaining customers with a proven track record of travel is no longer important to the airlines. There are just too many of us to matter anymore. Gone are the days when frequent flyers were a small percentage of the population and in 2014 the economics of trying to placate us just don’t make as much sense. So I am once again a free agent. I have miles spread out across four airlines, not enough anywhere to achieve status for next year in all likelihood. As a road warrior this sense of disorganization drives me crazy, and I once again find myself trying to decide – US Airways/American or United? I don’t know the answer, I was hoping United would make that choice easy for me but sadly that just isn’t the case.
Status No Longer of Value
As I write this though I realize that having status isn’t what it used to be and losing it may not be the end of the world. Sure, I’ll miss automatic domestic upgrades and the mileage bonuses were a nice perk. Most of all I’ll miss lounge access, but even that isn’t the worst thing to have happen. But those are the sum total of the benefits, and even those are being devalued every day. Changes in frequent flyer programs means miles are harder to earn and much harder to use. The cost of cashing out for business and first-class seats has gone up exponentially.
Even the silly little benefits are being phased out. The other day I booked a flight on Lufthansa to Malta. The ticket cost nearly $1,300, but I was happy to fly with them and yes, earn some Star Alliance miles. As is my way, I went in to choose my seat assignments – vital for me as a 6’2” guy with bad knees. Picking the right seat isn’t just a perk; it’s a necessity when I fly. I couldn’t believe what I saw though; Lufthansa recently changed their policies and no longer allow passengers to select their seat assignments in advance. Well, that’s not quite true, you can pick your seat but for a fee.
I understand why airlines have so many fees; that the razor thin profit margins involved with aviation requires these new a la carte options. But to force all passengers to pay for any seat assignment, even in the worst chair onboard, is beyond ridiculous and borders on the insulting. They issued a statement in April about their new ‘early seat reservation’ process; the phrasing making it seem as if we’re asking a huge favor of the airline, when in reality this is fairly routine. A basic seat is $35 per leg and one that provides any modicum of comfort is $100. When selecting the seats for my flights, I discovered that the price of the ticket wasn’t $1,300, but $1,500 if I were to select the seats of my choice. It sickened me and still does. On a long-haul flight this is not the way to do business. What about people like me, with physical issues (knees) who need certain seat assignments but don’t want to pay an exorbitant amount for them? Had I known about this policy in advance, I would never have booked with them and it will absolutely impact my booking decisions in the future.
With the changes in frequent flyer programs and the diminished perks allotted to frequent flyers, it seems to me that there really is no reason to stay loyal to one airline anymore. I do still believe in the power of the alliances, especially when booking award tickets, but that’s about it. Just as the airlines have chased the money with every introduced fee, passengers are found chasing the best deals – trying to find airlines without Lufthansa-style hidden fees. It’s a challenge, and it’s a new world of aviation where the companies don’t care about their passengers and the passengers really don’t care about the airlines. Maybe it’s not so new and I’m just naïve, but I will miss the days of collecting frequent flyer miles and flying with even a hint of comfort and decorum.
What do you think? Am I just bitter or do I have a point?