Ah, the good old days when there used to be three elite levels for airlines – Silver, Gold, and Platinum. Generally, those levels were recognized at 25K, 50K, 75 or 100K respectively for miles flown annually.
I realize this is a bit of an oversimplification because not all the legacy carriers followed this strict status. Also, there are some frequent fliers who qualify for elite status through segments, not air miles. Nevertheless, the points here remain valid.
In days gone by, Silver status had some value though it varied by airline. It was considered an achievement and there were rewards. Indeed, it was very possible for Silver status fliers to get upgrades to first class as long as they flew at non-peak times.
Those days are gone. Here are the frequent flier status programs today:
American Airlines maintains three levels: Gold (25K), Platinum (50K), and Executive Platinum (100K).
US Airways recognizes four elite status levels: Silver (25K), Gold (50K), Platinum (75K), and Chairman (100K).
United Airline’s names are different but the programs are basically the same: Premier (25K), Premier Executive (50K), and 1K (which is actually 100K but sounds better).
Continental currently follows the more standard-named Silver/Gold/Platinum as above but there is every reason to believe their program will be merged into United’s. That means CO frequent fliers will need an additional 25,000 miles a year to maintain their highest status level. I’m included in this group.
Delta Airlines, which merged with Northwest, added a fourth level this year: Silver (25K), Gold (50K), Platinum (75K), and Diamond (125K).
Delta no doubt added the Diamond Medallion level when they realized there were simply too many at the Platinum level after the merger. Also, they likely wanted to join the other airlines recognizing a super status flier. However, they skipped the 100K level and jumped to 125,000 miles, thus keeping their top tier at a more manageable level.
So what happened to those precious upgrades now missing for so many? It can be traced to three things:
- There are fewer planes in the air today from the legacy carriers
- Airlines are making greater use of hubs, forcing more passengers to fly through certain cities
- Mergers have swelled the numbers of elite status fliers at all levels
In the real world, this is what I am seeing. As a Continental Platinum, my upgrades are pretty regular. However, the merger will move the top elite to 100K so the Platinum level may no longer exist. Instead, former CO Platinums will become members of United’s Premier Exec unless United adds a fourth level.
Regardless of whether United adds another level, those with only 75,000 miles a year will see far fewer upgrades. That trickles down all the way to the Silvers/Premiers, who will see very few if any.
On a recent flight as a Delta Gold million miler, the best I could do was a middle seat. At least I was upgraded to an exit row middle seat but with ten – yes, 10 – Diamond Medallions on that plane, even they were pushed to the back.
The Silver Medallions? They never had a chance.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still benefits at the lowest elite level. Usually it means faster check-in, free checked bags, quicker boarding, and at least a shot at an upgrade to a better seat. It might not be in first class but it could mean a free upgrade to a more comfortable seat in Coach.
However, the most desired benefit of elite status is still the coveted seat in first class. For those at the lowest elite level, the best chance for a seat upgrade is to fly from a less congested airport, on less crowded days of the week, to a less frequent destination.
For the reasons above, even second-tier elites will find the skies a lot less friendly in the future.