New data surveying the ranks of top-tier frequent flyers suggests that due to program changes in 2019, 20 percent are at risk of not qualifying for the same tier of elite status.

Airline elite status is typically earned when a frequent flyer spends enough time in the air — and money on the airline — to receive a select tier of perks in return. On American, Delta, and United, the lowest tier of elite status is earned after flying 25,000 miles and spending $3,000.

The data comes from an informal social media survey conducted of top-tier Executive Platinum elites on American Airlines. Ramon Kolb, an Executive Platinum member on the airline and a data hobbyist, collected and parsed the results from over 200 anonymous participants.

Of the data collected, 20 percent of top-tier AAdvantage passengers flying in 2018 spent less than $15,000 on the carrier. Late in the year, both American and United changed the spend requirements for earning top-tier status; in 2019, top-tier passengers need to fly 100,000 miles and spend $15,000 instead of $12,000 to earn the same top Executive Platinum or 1K status, respectively.

Should passengers’ travel habits stay the same, the survey suggests that the top tier of AAdvantage and Mileage Plus ranks will shrink by 20 percent by the time the 2020 travel year starts.

As to whether that contraction will actually happen though, is still unclear.

According to Dave Feldman, an airline and hotel loyalty expert at New World Loyalty, American and United could be betting that their heaviest-spending travelers are willing to put even more cash into the airlines this year. Feldman suggests that the recent move to increase spending requirements may be a gamble to capture further travelers who annually spend the requisite amount of cash on the carrier and then migrate their business elsewhere for further travel.

Determining the number of top tier elites that carry their business elsewhere, however, can be a risky gamble. Data from the survey run by Kolb suggests that 17.6 percent of Executive Platinum Members have top, let alone any, status on another carrier — United is the biggest competitor carrying 3.8 percent of American passengers. But it’s not clear whether those passengers split their business out of desire or necessity.

Airlines are also tight-lipped about what the impact of the qualification standards are, and the motivations behind them. A spokesperson for American Airlines shared simply that “in an effort to ensure we reward our best customers with the benefits that are most valuable to them, we made changes to the way customers qualify for Executive Platinum status, and the benefits they receive when they go beyond this milestone.”

Separately, a spokesperson for United shared a similar viewpoint. “We’re adjusting qualification requirements for Premier status to make sure we’re offering our most appealing program benefits to our most loyal customers, and that these benefits, such as upgrades, remain more easily available.”

What is clear, however, is that many budget travelers will still be pushed to the margins as airlines explore the best way to extract revenue out of their top tier frequent flyers. For those who barely earned $12,000 in spend during the 2018 travel year, 2019 will be a difficult year to re-qualify.

Photo Credit: American and United regional jets side-by-side, as operated by Mesa Air Group Mesa Air Group