Does long-term loyalty deserve long-term returns? It seems natural that the answer to this question should be a resounding yes. But it is getting harder and harder to tell if that is really the case in the airline world these days. British Airways recently introduced a lifetime status option, for example, while American Airlines and United Airlines have had such recognition as part of their respective programs for more than a decade. Loyalty certainly still carries value, but how does long-term loyalty fare these days?
In early December I crossed over the Million Mile threshold with United Airlines. I didn’t really go too far out of my way to reach that point; I was flying anyways and the short-term value of using the MileagePlus program was sufficient to skew my travel patterns in that direction. Still, at the end of just over a decade I’d hit the magic number and it caused some reflection, both on the value of that lifetime status for me and also the potential value for hitting the next million.
It isn’t that the benefits of the lifetime status are worthless. They are far from it, in fact. But the airlines are moving more and more towards recognition of value and profit on a transactional basis, not a relationship basis, and that does result in the benefits being worth less.
Yes, I get access to lounges now on all my Star Alliance operated itineraries, even if flying in economy class. And occasionally some bonus miles or reduced fees. Those are very real benefits. But it is hard to see where the added costs of acquiring reduced benefits starts to pay off for someone starting that quest today. Want free checked bags? There’s probably a cheap credit card which provides the same benefit. Or fly an airline which includes that in the fare price (some do still exist). Ditto for priority boarding or lounge access. And nearly all of the benefits can be purchased a la carte, too.
Loyalty programs are still useful for travelers; the value of them should not be underestimated. But the value to most leisure travelers has eroded significantly in recent years, especially when it comes to elite status tiers. Even for business travelers the core benefits of elite status such as complimentary upgrades are being realized less often as the airlines move to price those seats more aggressively.
The airlines are starting to make money again, thanks in large part to industry consolidation. That should mean good things for the most valuable customers in terms of their travel experience. But airlines have also quite notably changed the definition of who a valuable customer is. Just flying a million miles with one airline is going to be less and less a sufficient qualification as such.
Going out of one’s way to pursue lifetime status no longer has quite the same appeal as it did some years ago. I’m glad I got that out of the way when I did.