Consumer advocate Christopher Elliott asks, “Frequent flyer programs have become increasingly elitist. Is it time to end them?” No. It is not…
I could just say “THE END” and be done, but let’s flesh out his argument and why he is way off-base.
If you’re looking for the best frequent flyer program to join, maybe you’re asking the wrong question. Because the best frequent flyer program might be none at all – at least when it comes to air travel.
That’s a misleading lead, because even Elliott himself later concedes in the same column:
If you’re going to fly anyway, you might as well receive credit.
Uh, yeah. That’s pretty much why EVERYONE should add their frequent flyer numbers to each booking.
But Elliott believes loyalty programs are a false religion.
Even though frequent flyer programs have a cultlike following, they’re a false religion. Program members must pledge their business to an airline or make all of their purchases on a branded credit card.
Classical deductive fallacy.
But the points lose value over time or expire. And these schemes have deepened the divide between the “haves” and “have-nots”: people without status who receive the worst service and pay outrageous fees.
Delta points don’t expire and United just joined the bandwagon. Expect American to as well. Rather than say those “have nots” pay outrageous fees, I’d argue that those who fly often are rewarded with lower fees. Surely that is not unreasonable, is it?
Elliott presents an anecdote of one very satisfied American Airlines Concierge Key (top status earned by high spending) to argue:
Airlines want you to believe they treat all of their loyalty program members like [this]. But only a fraction of passengers are real VIPs. A vast majority of us mindlessly give all of our business to an airline, but when it comes to getting something back, we face high hurdles: blackout dates, high fees, and severely limited award travel availability, to name a few.
Again, a classical deductive fallacy.
Dumb Traveler = “Proof” Loyalty Programs Are A Waste Of Time
But Elliott has a counterexample for us.
[Airlines] collects our travel dollars and data and gives little of value in return for our loyalty.
At least that’s the assessment of David Pring-Mill, a consultant from Vancouver, Canada. He abandoned his frequent flyer program a few years ago after his miles expired. Between the promise of “free flights” misleading benefits, he considers it a poor investment of his time and money and believes his years of loyalty were all for nothing.
“I value my time too much to mess with these schemes now,” he says.
So some consultant who was foolish enough to let his miles expire is now an authoritative voice in asserting that it is simply a waste of time to learn the ins and outs of loyalty programs?
The Parade Of Horribles
But wait! There’s more!
Loyalty programs are filled with “gotchas” like extra fees to redeem your “free” award tickets, blackout dates and the almost constant devaluation of miles.
Yes, and that is hardly a surprise considering it has been that way for nearly 20 years. And extra fees and blackout dates hardly make miles worthless, only comparatively less valuable than a system that never really existed. Capacity-controls are necessary when demand generally far outstrips supply.
Then Elliott bemoans the general state of flying in 2019, which I think he greatly exaggerates.
Today, non-elite passengers are outcasts. Hit with nuisance fees, squeezed into tiny seats, served by disgruntled flight attendants, they are treated worse than cargo. No wonder airline customer satisfaction scores are circling the drain.
And he cannot help but to mock the very people he ridicules for chasing status in the first place:
Perhaps the reason for our collective suffering is in the front of the plane. There, you’ll see the elites in lie-flat seats enjoying the royal treatment. You’ll also find the wannabes in their “premium” economy seats, hoping for an upgrade. They think they’ve found the best frequent flyer program.
Yes Mr. Elliott, that is why I concentrate my flying with one airline, not several. It is because when I do that, I get to enjoy lie-flat seats and better (not royal) treatment.
Award Redemptions Are Not A False Hope
I run an award consulting company…I know better than most how many excellent award redemptions still resist for those who are willing to seek them out. It often does take time, though airlines are making it easier than ever before by adding the ability to book partners online.
Yes, airlines still offer over-the-top perks for their platinum-card customers. But most of us sit in tiny seats and cling to a false hope we can someday earn an upgrade or a “free” ticket.
It is not a false hope!
The gap between elites and non-elites has never been wider, or more shameful. We’d be better off without this ridiculous caste system.
I don’t really see this is the case. I see more segmentation of the market, with basic economy fares as a way to squeeze more money out. But I also see airfares remaining at consistently low levels. Americans have made their preference clear: they are not willing to pay for extra perks that were once included in the price of the ticket. They prefer to pay less.
Lastly, Elliott offers three pieces of advices, which necessitate clarification and correction.
Find a program that plays fewer games with you. Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines get consistently good marks for their programs…
Delta? In what world? I’d say look beyond U.S. airlines to foreign programs like British Airways Avios or Air France/KLM Flying Blue as an alternate to U.S. loyalty programs. But what loyalty program makes sense for you depends upon your specific travel preferences and what you want to redeem your miles on.
Sign up for a better card. Although some travel reward programs deliver on their promises, you might get more bang for your buck with a rewards credit card or a card that offers cash back, says Greg Mahnken, a credit industry analyst with Credit Card Insider. “A cash-back card gives you more flexibility than frequent flyer miles,” he says.
Oh dear. Yes, a cash-back card may make sense if you are just redeeming your miles for economy class domestic travel. But if you value premium cabin redemptions at all, stay away from cash-back cards and use cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or American Express Gold card.
Use your loyalty as leverage. “Demand they take care of you,” says frequent flyer Travis Chambers, who owns a video production company in Los Angeles. “Play hardball.” When customer service gets bad (and it often does), use your loyalty and status to negotiate better treatment. If necessary, he adds, “threaten to leave.”
But I thought he just told us that loyalty status is worthless and no one should waste their time pursuing it?
Elliott’s sentiment will resonate with an uninformed public which does not understand how airline loyalty programs work. But for those who invest the time to learn programs and make the choice to concentrate flying on one carrier or alliance, the awards are indeed palatable. It is one of my primary missions on this blog to show you how.
Is Elliott off-base or right on?