Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Even Elite Frequent Fliers Find Fewer Airline Perks: Flying 100,000 miles a year won’t guarantee regular upgrades to business or first class anymore

The decline in airline amenities that has vexed consumers in the back of the plane is now hitting elite frequent fliers, too.

Some of the big carriers’ best customers complain that perks have been whittled away. Delta used to give its top-tier frequent fliers free club membership, but now offers that as a choice in a bundle of options. United paid Global Entry fees for top customers three years, but stopped in 2015. And the most important loyalty benefit—an upgrade—has gotten much rarer because airlines are selling more first- and business-class seats, auctioning them off, and in some cases shrinking those cabins and reducing legroom there as well.

“The loyalty is gone,” says Peter Boer, a consultant to technology companies who is based in Florida and Virginia. He now buys business-class and first-class tickets on different airlines for his travelers, since he can’t get an upgrade from American, where he’s a lifetime platinum member.

Even “systemwide upgrades,” the golden ticket for travelers that used to let you instantly upgrade any flight, are becoming harder to use, elite-level frequent fliers say. Systemwide upgrades are earned by travelers who spend heavily with airlines and fly more than 100,000 miles a year, or hit a milestone like 2 million lifetime miles. They used to get you confirmed upgrades when you bought your ticket.

With United, you can’t buy the cheapest ticket for international trips and use systemwide upgrade certificates. You must spend more for a coach ticket and then wait, not knowing if the upgrade will clear. If it doesn’t come through, you paid more for your coach seat than necessary.

On American, the available inventory of seats for systemwide upgrades has shrunk. That means waiting until departure on many flights to see if you’ll get a cushier seat.

Mark Kovac, a Dallas-based business consultant who is a member of American’s highest loyalty tier, invitation-only Concierge Key, bought coach tickets last fall for a family summer trip to London. He was told seats weren’t available then to use his systemwide upgrades—the first time that had happened to him.

When he complained, American told him the airline’s predictive models are blocking upgrades more often so premium seats are available to sell close to departure. “It is true that until a few years back, systemwide upgrades would, more often than not, get cleared at the time of booking. However, that is not the case now,” a customer service representative at American’s AAdvantage program wrote.

To Mr. Kovac, that erases a big benefit. “This is probably the biggest, most noticeable thing they’ve changed,” he says. “I used to want to save these for something special. Now I just use them whenever I can.”

Mr. Kovac and his family did get upgraded shortly before the overnight flight to London on Friday, but his children, ages 10, 8 and 6, were spread around the cabin, he says.

American says it has improved its international premium cabins and seen an increase in paid demand. “We continue to refine our systems to reflect the demand for the product while still providing as much availability as possible to our elite members,” a spokeswoman says.

Frequent fliers say they understand airlines’ desire to sell premium seats rather than give them away, but upgrades used to be considered a necessary investment in loyalty. Frequent travelers essentially paid for those seats in advance by buying expensive tickets trip after trip.

In January, American also chopped how many systemwide upgrades it gave out to 100,000-mile-a-year executive platinum members. Each year executive platinum members used to get eight SWUs. This year that was cut to four, with the opportunity to earn two for reaching 150,000 miles and two more at 200,000 miles.

Gary Leff, co-founder of the frequent-flier community InsideFlyer, says top travelers are complaining a lot about American lately because the airline is making changes after its merger with US Airways. American was considered the most generous for top customers, because Delta and United had already weakened some perks, he says. Now there are few major differences between the three big airlines, Mr. Leff says.

Delta says the percentage of passengers in first class who paid to sit there used to be around 10%, but by next year will hit 70%. Airlines offer more first-class sales and discounted seats and push affordable upgrades by email and kiosk.

To placate their best customers stuck in coach, American and United now give them the small consolation of a free cocktail and food item for sale onboard.

A bigger upgrade issue looms for top-tier travelers: How “premium economy” cabins will impact upgrades on international flights. Premium economy—usually a separate cabin with more legroom, wider seats and upgraded food compared with coach—has been a big hit on international airlines, priced several hundred dollars above coach tickets but several thousand below business class.

American is rolling out its version now. Delta says its premium economy will launch in the fall. United says it is taking steps toward premium economy, too.

The catch: On many international airlines, upgrades move you up one cabin. So instead of jumping from coach to business, an upgrade from economy moves you to premium economy. To get to business class you have to buy a premium economy ticket. “It reduces the value of the upgrade,” Mr. Leff says.

U.S. airlines have yet to say what their upgrade policy will be on flights with premium economy.

Airline mergers swelled membership in the top tiers of loyalty status, so airlines have made it harder to qualify for elite status by adding annual spending requirements.

In January, American created a new elite tier called platinum pro. It’s halfway between its platinum, which requires 50,000 miles of travel a year, and 100,000-mile executive platinum. On May 20, the airline started ranking elite-level members on upgrade lists in part by how much they’ve spent on American tickets the previous year.

An American spokeswoman says changes were made so the best customers have the best access to perks.

Mr. Boer, the consultant, says he understands airlines’ desire to generate revenue and isn’t angry. But he questions whether they will regret weakening loyalty for so many. “American is now just another airline in the mix,” he says. “I’m kind of wondering if our friends at American are shooting themselves in the foot.”

Original article can be found here:  https://www.wsj.com