Why Airline Elite Status is Less Valuable Now Than Ever Before

Airlines, points, miles, status, silver, gold, platinum, elite; whatever! These are the buzzwords that have long defined airline elite status. Passengers would go to extraordinary lengths to get miles and points. People would buy long, cheap turnaround flights just to get the miles to qualify or re-qualify for their elite status. Why? So they could get some benefits or perks from airlines. Nowadays, with less airlines, more elite passengers, and a million ways to get a lot of miles and status-airline elite status is less valuable now than ever and it isn’t stopping here!
100,000 mile offer credit card
I used to get excited when I would hit my marks each year. Whether it was 25,000, 50,000 or 100,000 miles, I always got excited when I hit the next elite status mark. That meant, I wouldn’t have to wait in line, I could board first and guarantee a spot for my carry-on bag. More importantly, I would get valuable bonus miles, free upgrades to business class and lounge access around the world at partner airline lounges. I was living the life feeling like George Clooney in ‘Up in the Air’.
george clooney in up in the air
I got my first elite status in 1999 with American Airlines. I have flown over 4 million miles with hundreds of different airlines on seven continents and every country in the world. I have or have held elite status with every major American carrier and average about 250,000 miles flown per year, more or less. However, in the last few years, my airline elite status has become less and less valuable for several reasons.

1. There are fewer airlines

Airline consolidation in the United States over the past 10 years has really decimated the value of elite status with a given airline. Now there are essentially three major airlines and all of the elite members from USAir, Continental, Northwest, TWA, etc. have been swallowed up into the three majors: United; Delta and American.
american new logo
This means that your chances for free upgrades are much less. I fly a lot and I rarely get free upgrades and almost never on hub routes; meaning flying from New York to a hub like Houston or Miami or Chicago for a connection.
The only time you may is on a less flown route or at an off hour. Additionally, you never get free upgrades on cross-country flights. Airlines have pretty much blocked upgrades for Los Angeles and San Francisco to New York flights even for top customers.
united 747
Fewer airlines mean fuller flights and longer lines. Having status doesn’t necessarily mean that you breeze right through check-in or security like you used to because everyone has status these days and those lines can be just as long at times.

2. Airlines are making it harder to qualify for elite status

This was a no brainer for the airlines and was bound to happen. I am surprised it took so long but now United and Delta have initiated a cash spent qualifying factor for elite status qualification. This means that in addition to achieving mileage thresholds, you also have to spend a certain amount of money to do so.
United premier qualification schedule
For instance, on United, you need to fly 25,000 miles and spend $2,500 to qualify for their silver status; which to be honest doesn’t really get you much anyway. Delta has a similar aspect this year and it goes up incrementally for different status and mileage levels.
Delta medallion requirements for qualification
This is good and bad. It is good for business travelers, who pay with their corporate card and don’t care about cost. It is bad for those independent travelers who look for deals.
amex corporate cards
Now, if you fly twice in a year from New York to Singapore and get a great deal on Singapore Airlines or another airline in the Star Alliance but it doesn’t add up to $2,500 spent, you won’t qualify for the 25,000 mile status level. Even if you’ve flown over 25,000 miles; you will still to spend more to get to that level.
new york to hawaii mileage run
This also essentially kills mileage runs or at least in theory it should. Why would you fly New York to Hawaii for a day for 10,000 qualifying miles if you get a deal for $400 if you still have to spend another $1000 or so to qualify. It doesn’t make sense.

3. There are too many ways to get miles

Now you can earn miles hundreds of ways. The most common way is through credit cards. My opinion is that these new rules are going to kill valuable credit card sales as well because 40,000 sign-up miles aren’t nearly as valuable as they once were with new mileage minimums on reward tickets.
credit cards for miles, elite status
People have been abusing mileage giveaways for years. Some people have hacked their way around the world with all kinds of different scams; both smart and devious. I have never been a hacker and really don’t appreciate them.

4. Mileage Minimums have gone up

This is the most crushing blow in my opinion and again, it was only a matter of time. This minimum increase is a direct result of all the prior reasons stated. There are too many miles out there. Airlines almost had to raise minimums to balance it out.
frequent flyer logos
There are and were fewer mileage seats available, especially at low levels. Now, business class mileage tickets are almost outrageous. Coach seats are still affordable using miles but taxes and fees are higher still. But business and first class mileage tickets are where they’ve screwed passengers.
elite status chart
So basically, with all these things going against having elite airline status, the only real valuable thing I see left is international lounge access. Certainly not US lounges because they’re all terrible. I am going to write another post on that soon.
airline club lounge
However, is lounge access, for someone who doesn’t travel internationally a lot, really worth it? No, it’s not, especially as you can also get this with certain credit cards.
is it worth it
Airline elite status is less valuable today and the value will only go down further. Rethink whether you want to put time, effort and especially money into qualifying or re-qualifying. Is it worth it? What value are you getting? The answer is not too much; sorry to say. It was a fun game to play!

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  1. Tremendous post Lee, thanks for giving me something useful to read on a Monday morning on the train!

  2. Conversely, you could argue that the mileage minimum increases will help the credit card companies sell more cards because non FF’s will feel that’s the only way they can get enough miles to get free flights.

    Good post, very thought provoking. I didn’t realize they added a cash feature as well on United and Delta this year.

    • Ya I could see that happening too but with spending requirements on credit cards with high mileage bonuses I don’t think it’d be worth it for a free flight…it could be more costly!

  3. Consolidation of US airlines has been the crushing blow to air travel in general I think. It has driven prices up, competition down and has given the big remaining airlines the right to basically do as they please. Soon they just might nationalize the airlines like in many other countries.

  4. That dollars spent qualifier is the tough one. So basically they are de-incentivizing you to buy cheap fares. I have always been able to achieve 25,000 a year and I don’t travel that much. Maybe once a month or two-like a normal person!

    This will be great for business travelers as you said who use corporate money to pay for their tickets and they are more likely to get upgrades then as independent travelers drop off the upgrade lists.

  5. Are you referring to Bachuwa in #3???? I hope so!

  6. That’s really annoying news about the minimum requirements being raised and also the money spent requirement. I hardly travel but do like to avoid lines with my paltry silver status. I knew it was bad when all these mergers started happening.

  7. Another example of big business trying to screw the little people.

  8. Is the same thing happening with European airlines as well? I assume this affects us booking alliance award flights through American carriers but is it alliance wide?

  9. Great post, Lee! Very informative.

  10. Great post and I totally agree that this was inevitable, it had to happen. There are too many people with too many miles and too many people scamming the system. It’s like welfare!

  11. Good stuff. Most of the airline elite status stuff has lost its appeal to me. Like you said, where is the value? people go nuts over these points and you really don’t get much, it’s a great ad gimmick.

  12. Air travel just sucks in general these days so this is not at all surprising. Soon we’ll be paying to use the bathroom on board and people will be fighting because others are talking too loud on their cell phones or watching porn or something on the plane!

  13. It’s usually even harder in the UK as well – using miles can be problematic too as you still have to pay taxes – very annoying!

    Having said that, it still brings me joy to have an elite status and I get excited before each flight just in case they upgrade me!


  14. Initially not in favor of it, but if it helps get crying babies out of Business Class, I may warm to it.

  15. Good post. I fly about 120 flights a year but many of these are overseas on Star Alliance carriers. I always use my UA FF number but now that spend on SA doesn’t count towards UA status. On top of that if you elect to upgrade on UA with miles and $$$ the extra $$$ spent on the upgrade do not count towards your annual spend……I am done with them and will never spend my money or my companies money on them going forward if there is any way to avoid it. Ditto for any US carrier.

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