Not long ago, a new mother contacted Alaska Airlines, asking if she could extend her elite status for one year because she recently had a baby and wouldn’t travel much in 2017.
Some airlines outside of the United States regularly make concessions for new parents. They know new moms and dads don’t travel often, and some carriers calculate they can drive loyalty by letting them put elite status on hold for a year.
But no U.S airline had a similar policy, something that did not make sense to Alaska executives, including Alison Carpentier, Alaska’s director of brand loyalty and a mother of two. So on Thursday, Alaska changed its rules.
New parents who take work leave in 2017 — and can prove it — will have elite status expire at the end of 2018, rather than this year. Parents will be eligible for the perk as many times as they need it, provided they re-qualify for elite-level status between children. Virgin America frequent flyers are also eligible, though they’ll get Alaska status for the extra year, since Virgin America’s loyalty program will disappear on Jan. 1, 2018.
“Having a new child in your household — whether it’s the first, second or fifth — is hard,” Carpentier said in an interview. “It puts your life on pause. You can’t do all the things you did before. You’re not traveling at the pace you did previously. There’s no need to punish folks for taking time off to care for their family.”
The change comes as Alaska strengthens its loyalty program, MileagePlan, with the carrier betting it can win customers by offering more generous perks than competitors do. Alaska is the only U.S. airline to allot customers miles based on how far they fly, rather than how much money they pay for their tickets. Most flyers earn more miles with Alaska than on any other U.S. carrier.
Several other airlines, including Air Canada, British Airways and Qantas, have recently enacted similar policies for new parents. British Airways announced its change on May 3, with new parents eligible for two status freezes within a five-year period.
“Just because they’re not flying for awhile, doesn’t mean their loyalty and new arrival shouldn’t be celebrated and rewarded,” British Airways CEO Alex Cruz said in a release.
At Air Canada, relatively few flyers have taken advantage of the change announced last year, said Mark Nasr, managing director for loyalty. “I would put the number in the hundreds, but growing,” he said.
But the customers who take advantage tend to be loyal, he said.
“We are typically a part of their life,” Nasr said. “If that’s the case, we need to do what we can to fit into their lifestyles. It is really important. We want to make absolutely sure we can do what we can to make sure they have one less worry.”
Most airlines spin this decision as the right thing to do, but it’s not bad business. Frequent flyers take elite status seriously, and as long as they have it, they’ll likely remain loyal to receive free upgrades to premium economy and first class.
“I think frequent flyers in general are obsessed with their status and don’t want to lose it,” Carpentier said.
But once it’s gone, they’re free agents. A former Alaska elite member based in Seattle might decide to give Delta Air Lines a try, since both carriers have hubs there. Or an ex-Virgin America loyalist in San Francisco might give United Airlines a chance.
“When you have lost all your benefits with one, you’re kind of fair game,” Carpentier said. “But that piece was not the primary motivation for it.”