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Is frequent flyer status everything it used to be?

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST

(Continued from Page 1)

Is it getting less worthwhile, or at least harder, to attain “status” in airline frequent flyer programs?

These things make me wonder:

1. The days of buying a $200 round-trip mileage-run cross-country trip to get 5,000 miles aren’t what they used to be. Delta and United, starting in 2014, have added minimum spend requirements in order to get status. Delta requires a $2,500 spend to get the lowest “silver medallion” status in addition to 25,000 miles flown up to $12,500 and 125,000 miles to get the highest “diamond” status. United requires spending between $2,500 and $10,000 plus miles. Miles alone no longer cut it. American will probably follow suit eventually if they haven’t by the time you read this.

2. Airlines are selling last-minute first and business class upgrades for ridiculously cheap. That means that some “status flyers” who hang around the gate hoping for upgrades may be more disappointed than ever. American is even now allowing anyone to bid for upgrades (( http://www.usatoday.com/story/todayinthesky/2013/11/20/american-airlines-to-let-fliers-bid-on-first-class-upgrades/3654575/ ).

3. Some new planes have fewer first and business class seats than the models they’re replacing. So there’s less availability.

4. More flyers have status than ever before, thanks to status matches. And US Air even lets you buy your way in with their “Buy up to Preferred” program (( http://www.usairways.com/en-US/dividendmiles/preferred/buy-up-to-preferred.html ) (presumably your USAir status will transfer over to American when the merger is complete).

5. Some of the perks of “status,” like early boarding and free checked bags, anyone can get with an airline credit card like the United Explorer Card.

I’ve never had status of any kind with an airline, even though I fly thousands of miles each year. That’s partly because I’m not “loyal” — as the founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, I’d never spend $200 or $300 more to fly on a particular airline just to get the miles or points. That’s just daft. Last year I flew on every domestic airline except Allegiant, whichever was cheaper. Many of those flights I bought or upgraded with miles rather than cash. I have excellent credit, and every time there’s a 40,000- or 100,000 mile-bonus offer when you get a new credit card, I sign up, then a cancel the card after a year (usually, I’m eligible for the same offer a couple of years later). And, of course, as a travel writer I often travel on “comp” tickets that don’t earn miles or status.

I’m also pretty good at finding really cheap paid first class tickets, which are popping up more and more lately, and which are part of the reason why I wonder why attaining status is what is used to be.

Consider: in December I was able to buy first class on Delta from L.A. to Ft. Lauderdale for $349 one-way. On the return, I flew American in first nonstop from Miami to L.A. for $495 one-way.

—Fewer first and business seats to begin with

American’s spiffy new A319 planes are great. They’re replacing those old MD-80’s (AA has 190 of them at last count). The 80’s have (or had) 16 first class seats. The A319s? Just eight. Since most people flying in first or business are either frequent flyer upgrades, airline employees, or otherwise freeloaders, I’m sure American figured “Why not reduce the number of premium seats and actually sell them. And if we can’t sell them for the ‘list price’ then we’ll take whatever the market will bear.’” Makes perfect business sense.

And those super new cabins on the trans-continental flights on AA, Delta and United with the lie flat business and first seats? They sure are comfy, but guess what: They take up much more room than the old seats, which merely reclined. So there are fewer of them fleet-wide. I’ll bet you’ll be paying for those more often than getting “status” upgrades.

—Cheap last minute upgrade offers

It used to be that I’d get last minute upgrade offers on the trans-con flights that were tempting but just barely. Such as a $700 upgrade from my cheap economy class seat on the United JFK-LAX service to business class, one-way. But recently I was offered a $250 upgrade from economy to business on American on a $189 one-way JFK-LAX fare. Did I buy it? You bet. Did that mean that someone hoping for a free upgrade didn’t get it? Yep.

—Cheaper purchased first class and business class

As long as you’re willing to buy a non-refundable fare, you can sometimes get confirmed business and first for just twice the price of a cramped economy class seat. Recently I needed to fly from New York to Boston last minute, and fares on the shuttles from LaGuardia were something like $400 one-way. Then I saw a non-refundable first class fare from JFK on AA for $140 one-way. Naturally, I bought it. Airlines are realizing that not everyone is going to pay 10 times the economy class fare for a standard first class seat (we’re not all movie stars, trust fund babies or hedge fund moguls).

In short, airlines are managing their first and business class cabins more intelligently. Gone are the days when they’re willing to give away the very product that costs them the most to provide. They’d much rather limit inventory, and at least get something for those seats. And often that “something” is much more in line with what the product is actually worth.

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George Hobica is founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.

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