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After the first full year in which revenue-based loyalty programs have dominated the U.S. airline industry, the consensus is still out on whether mainstream travelers have entirely given up on frequent flyer miles. One indication, however, may suggest that airlines are willing to cede some ground to passengers: Promotions expediting elite status are starting to seep out.
Both Alaska Airlines and American Airlines have recently been targeting customers to offer a fast track for free elite status.
American’s campaign started in September but has recently scaled up to include direct mail sent to customers’ homes or offices. The campaign offers a range of complimentary Gold, Platinum or Platinum Pro statuses (earned at 25,000 flown miles + $3,000 in annual spend, 50,000 flown miles + $6,000 in annual spend or 75,000 flown miles + $9,000 spend, respectively) — including upgrades — to targeted members.
Most invitations for free status from American have come through email, though some targets are getting physical mailers. According to the blog Angelina Travels, anyone can try to sign up for the free status through a promotional landing page but only a certain segment of accounts have been targeted.
Launched last week, Alaska’s offering is slightly more modest. To some targeted members who let elite status lapse in 2017, the airline is offering a fast track back to the same status after a fixed set of flights. Scott Mackenzie, a writer at Travel Codex, was offered MVP Gold (typically earned after 40,000 flown miles) after only flying a 10,000-mile challenge. Others have reported receiving similar offers.
Though Alaska and American may both be trying to woo back frequent flyers, they may be doing it for different reasons.
Now that American’s revenue-based loyalty program is fully in place, it’s likely that the airline saw some attrition within the ranks of AAdvantage. Beyond that the airline has recently been suffering from a glut of bad press over its product. Many frequent travelers have complained about slowly degrading service and catering (further compounded by a listeria outbreak at the airline’s catering contractor in Los Angeles).
Additionally, American has received widespread criticism over its new ultra-dense 737 MAX aircraft. In its initial review of the new configuration, Airways Magazine concluded that “while there is no doubt that the 737 MAX represents a potential money-making machine for American, there is also no doubt that part of that potential will come at the expense of passenger comfort and overall product.”
To earn back some of its good favor with frequent flyers, there’s also no doubt that American may need to extend this olive branch of free elite status.
Alaska’s olive branch comes at the expense of its merger with Virgin America and a long fight with Delta for dominance in its Seattle hub.
After a protracted merger with Virgin America through last year, operations at both Alaska and Virgin America have suffered. For 11 months, Alaska’s on-time performance was worse in 2017 than in 2016 — and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics hasn’t reported the 12th month yet. Pressure from Delta, which has strong aspirations for expansion in Seattle, is also keeping Alaska’s marketing department on its toes.
Between grumpy passengers unhappy with performance and the constant threat of passengers defecting to Delta, Alaska’s incentives to keep elite passengers are well-justified.
Whether the trend of loyalty friendliness will continue may depend on how many passengers give up on revenue-based programs and shrug off elite status altogether. But if Alaska and American are any indication, things may soon start getting better for frequent flyers.
— Grant Martin
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