Out the win­dow

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL -

Once they re­tire or stop fly­ing, fre­quent fliers are find­ing that their air­line loy­alty is hardly re­cip­ro­cated.

CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT If you don’t like some of the re­cent changes to your air­line loy­alty pro­gram, talk to Mike Croswell. He’s a United Air­lines “Mil­lion Miler” who as­sumed that his three decades of de­vo­tion to the air­line would be re­cip­ro­cated af­ter he stopped be­ing a fre­quent flier. He as­sumed wrong. “The money I spent chas­ing Mil­lion Mile sta­tus is with­out a doubt the poor­est in­vest­ment of my ca­reer,” says Croswell, who lives in Aspen, Colo., and joined United’s fre­quent-flier pro­gram, MileagePlus, in 1983. “I have zero ben­e­fits that were promised to me.”

Mil­lion Mil­ers are, as the name sug­gests, air trav­el­ers who have given their long-term loy­alty to one air­line. In ex­change for fly­ing a mil­lion miles, they’re typ­i­cally of­fered life­time “elite” sta­tus that in­cludes ac­cess to up­grades, pre­ferred treat­ment and other perks re­served for an air­line’s top cus­tomers. But as air­lines be­gin ag­gres­sively re­struc­tur­ing their fre­quent-flier pro­grams, some veteran air trav­el­ers who have re­tired but were de­pend­ing on the ben­e­fits they worked for while they were still fre­quent fliers have found that their air­lines are no longer treat­ing them like the val­ued cus­tomers they thought they were.

Croswell says that his ben­e­fits have evap­o­rated since United’s merger with Con­ti­nen­tal. Gone are many of the up­grades and other perks, and his board­ing pass doesn’t even note his “Mil­lion Miler” sta­tus any­more. “Imag­ine putting money in a sav­ings ac­count, and the day you go to re­deem the promised re­turn, they say, ‘Sorry, we changed the rules. Your money is worth noth­ing now,’ ” he says. “I feel be­trayed.”

United Air­lines did not re­spond di­rectly to Croswell’s crit­i­cisms and would not pro­vide a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of its MileagePlus pro­gram for an in­ter­view. But Charles Ho­bart, a spokesman for the air­line, said that United’s loy­alty pro­gram is “very gen­er­ous to cus­tomers who have been loyal to us in the past.”

He added, “Our pro­gram is very gen­er­ous to cus­tomers who cur­rently and con­sis­tently re­ward us with their busi­ness, and we think it makes sense to re­ward our most fre­quent fliers.”

In other words, if you con­tinue show­ing your loy­alty to United by fly­ing on it, the air­line will con­tinue to re­ward you with ben­e­fits. Stop fly­ing, and the re­wards may not be as mag­nan­i­mous.

One rea­son United isn’t talk­ing is that it’s the sub­ject of a law­suit brought by an­other Mil­lion Miler. Ge­orge La­gen, a Chicago-based fre­quent flier, sued United in May af­ter the air­line re­duced his elite sta­tus. United has tried to get the case thrown out, claim­ing that it has the right to mod­ify its fre­quent­flier pro­gram, but in late Jan­uary, a fed­eral judge re­fused to dis­miss the case.

La­gen’s case is one of sev­eral law­suits against United re­sult­ing from changes that oc­curred af­ter it merged with Con­ti­nen­tal Air­lines and be­gan trim­ming the ben­e­fits of its com­bined fre­quent-flier pro­gram. But the Mil­lion Miler dustup is the most closely watched, not just among fre­quent trav­el­ers but also within the air­line in­dus­try. Although in­cre­men­tal de­val­u­a­tions of fre­quent-flier pro­grams aren’t un­usual, this marks the first time that a ma­jor air­line has made such dra­matic down­grades for its most es­tab­lished cus­tomers. If United pre­vails in court, it will al­most cer­tainly em­bolden other air­lines to take sim­i­lar steps.

Ac­tu­ally, it may have al­ready done that, at least in the minds of fre­quent trav­el­ers. A new sur­vey by Deloitte sug­gests that air­line loy­alty pro­grams are erod­ing and on the “de­cline.” Only 55 per­cent of air trav­el­ers con­sider loy­alty pro­grams of “high im­por­tance” when choos­ing an air­line, the study found. Since this is the first study of its kind, there are no pre­vi­ous num­bers to com­pare it with. But a con­ver­sa­tion with oth­ers with “life­time” elite sta­tus fills in some of the miss­ing de­tail.

For air­lines and their cus­tomers, it’s a damned-if-youdo, damned-if-you-don’t sce­nario. Take one of the pro­grams with rel­a­tively gen­er­ous re­wards, even for its long­time cus­tomers. Th­ese have be­come so wa­tered down that they are “use­less,” to hear pas­sen­gers such as Paul Lewis, a Den­ver-based con­sul­tant who lives in San­ti­ago, Chile, talk about it.

Lewis is a life­time “gold”-level elite on Amer­i­can Air­lines, which he man­ages to get up­graded to plat­inum sta­tus be­cause he still trav­els fre­quently. But he says that his gold sta­tus is al­most mean­ing­less, be­cause Amer­i­can has swelled the ranks of its elites by mak­ing it too easy to reach that level. As a re­sult, snag­ging an up­grade is nearly im­pos­si­ble, be­cause there are too many other golds com­pet­ing for a busi­ness­class seat.

Even so, plat­inum sta­tus is barely enough to keep him loyal. If he slipped back to gold for some rea­son, he says, he’d be out the door, “life­time sta­tus or not.”

For some, even life­time plat­inum sta­tus doesn’t cut it. Don Dom­ina, a re­tired sales vice pres­i­dent for a con­struc­tion equip­ment man­u­fac­turer in St. Louis, was awarded life­time plat­inum sta­tus on Amer­i­can Air­lines, but he has still stopped giv­ing his busi­ness to the air­line, in part be­cause he’s re­tired and in part be­cause the ben­e­fits aren’t what he’d been led to be­lieve they were when he be­came a fre­quent flier on Amer­i­can. “I did get a call from Amer­i­can won­der­ing where I had gone,” he said, adding, “There is no love.”

The so­lu­tion? Cut ben­e­fits so that the most de­serv­ing fre­quent fliers get the spe­cial treat­ment they de­serve. United tried to do that when it merged its loy­alty pro­gram with Con­ti­nen­tal’s, and Delta has an­nounced sim­i­lar changes start­ing next year, when it plans to tie its elite lev­els with the amount of money pas­sen­gers spend. But that pro­vokes a dif­fer­ent kind of back­lash.

Jonathan Yarmis, a tech­nol­ogy an­a­lyst based in New York, is a United Mil­lion Miler and a life­time gold-level flier. Though he gets up­graded from time to time be­cause of his sta­tus, he says that scor­ing one of the bet­ter seats is “rare.” I asked him whether he still felt ap­pre­ci­ated af­ter the re­cent changes. Not really, he said. Un­less you’re at the top of the elite-level lad­der, “you’re just not worth that much.”

It doesn’t seem to mat­ter if an air­line keeps its elite lev­els easy to main­tain for Mil­lion Mil­ers or, for that mat­ter, the mileage op­por­tunists who man­age to col­lect re­wards with­out dark­en­ing the door of an air­craft; or if the air­line starts to cut its pro­grams in or­der to make its top-tier cus­tomers happy. Too many loyal trav­el­ers say that they feel burned.

Croswell, who as a United Air­lines 1K mem­ber in 1996 was once asked to give up the first­class seat from Lon­don to Washington that he’d been up­graded to for a Mil­lion Miler, and gladly did it be­cause he says he knew that one day “my time would come” to be rec­og­nized, is done play­ing the loy­alty game.

“I’m still fly­ing,” he says. “But not on United.”

ALLA DREYVITSER/ THE WASHINGTON POST

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