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2016 was not a good year for frequent flyers, but for those committed to the road, not all was lost.
Frequent flyer programs for budget travelers stayed afloat thanks to some great work at Alaska Airlines, while in the product space many new developments are about to make at least the journey a bit more comfortable.
Sure, upgrades and elite status may have gone out the window in 2016, but if you want to take a glass-half-full perspective, here’s how the industry is improving:
Alaska Airlines Holds Its Ground On An Industry-Leading Loyalty Program
Despite an entire industry that’s in transition to revenue-based loyalty programs, Alaska Airlines bucked the trend this year and kept Mileage Plan solidly locked into distanced-based qualification, making it the easiest program in which budget travelers can now earn elite status. And even though it made some small moves to make upgrades more revenue-centric, it also made some positive changes to Mileage Plan late in the year.
The question now is whether Alaska has been dragging its feet in an effort to not lose loyal elites as it acquires Virgin America. American and US Airways did something similar in 2015, hoping to retain loyalty while the programs were in flux. If Alaska does the same, Mileage Plan (and Virgin America’s Elevate) members may be in for a rough year.
Credit Card Bonuses Have Never Been Higher
It’s well documented that revenue-based loyalty programs award fewer miles for most travelers, but one part of the equation that hasn’t changed is the credit card industry’s relationship with the travel industry.
Both American Express and Chase, in fact, aggressively pursued business travelers this year, each offering lavish point bonuses for credit card signups. Provided that consumers can handle the annual fees, at least this portion of the points firehose is still open.
First Class Seat Prices Are At A Record Low
Another side effect of the airline industry’s relentless march towards revenue this year was the precipitous drop in the cost of premium airline tickets. Before, the airlines chose to sell first class tickets at a high price and upgrade elites into any open seats at the time of the flight. In 2016 however, that model changed to selling more seats at a drastically lower price — and upgrading fewer elites.
Premium fare deals have been coming in so hot and heavy that Flyertalk’s forum specifically dedicated to the deals has taken off, while bloggers have made an industry out of finding and reporting on fares.
Premium Economy Is On The Rise
Fueled by international competition and yes, the pursuit of revenue, domestic airlines also started to invest in international premium economy sections in 2016, though the rollout will be prolonged.
Both American Airlines and Delta launched premium economy sections this year, American on its 787 and Delta on its upcoming A350. The aircraft will run primarily on international routes (which can potentially disrupt the current upgrade process), but for those with flexible-but-not-lavish expense accounts, the cabins may soon be a godsend.
International Business Class Is Rapidly Improving
As the gulf between international economy and business class starts to fill in with premium economy, airlines have now started to compete for the best international business class product.
Perhaps the best news this year came from United Airlines and its recently launched Polaris product, which promises lie flat seats and aisle access on each flight. Delta and American are also in the process of refining their respective premium products which means that the era of angled-flat business class seats and four-across cabins may soon be over.