Elite frequent flyer status determines where road warriors sit on the airplane, how much legroom they have, whether they have to pay for food or drink, and how long they wait to speak with an agent when they need rebooking.

When they lose it — perhaps because they change jobs, get sick, or take time off work to care for an ill family member or new baby — they can find it jarring. Once feted as an airline’s top customers, they move to the back of every line.

Starting Wednesday, though, Delta Air Lines’ customers won’t have to fear such a hard landing. Delta is now the third North American carrier to allow travelers to extend elite status if they have a major life event that keeps them from flying. But Delta’s policy is more sweeping than Alaska Airlines’ and Air Canada’s, which focus on new parents.

This is an interesting trend. Conventional wisdom suggests airline loyalty is dead, and customers no longer find enough value in the relationship. But while it’s true perks are no longer what they once were, and points aren’t worth what they were a decade or two ago, loyalty still matters.

Customers on every major U.S. airline covet elite status, and they not only hate losing it completely, but also loathe if they drop one level.

Delta knows it. Over the years, Delta has heard from many customers asking for exceptions so they can retain it, said Sandeep Dube, senior vice president for customer engagement and loyalty. Agents have been able to offer extensions on a case-by-case basis, but the airline wanted to make it official, he said.

Its new policy allows customers to regain their old status if they stop traveling to become a parent, recover from serious illness or injury, change jobs or career, go back to school, or care for an ailing family member. The airline will also offer grant status resumptions for other reasonable requests, Dube said.

“There was very clear feedback from our members that after a life event happens, getting back to travel can be quite stressful,” Dube said. “Our members want to get back to the same level of travel experience that they had prior to the life event.”

Program Requirements

They’ll need to do some work if they want to keep that status, though.

While Alaska and Air Canada will let new parents keep elite status as long as a year, just by asking, Delta’s policy requires customers to commit to traveling again if they want such a lengthy extension.

After they’re ready to fly again, former status holders will need to petition on Delta’s website and may need some supporting documentation. Once the request is granted, Delta will reinstate their elite status — but only for three months.

During those three months, customers will need to prove they are serious about resuming travel by flying a certain number of miles and spending a set amount of money. Once they do that, they’ll receive a much longer extension. A customer who reaches the thresholds this year would earn status through January 2021, Delta said.

Dube acknowledged some may abuse the system, just as customers may claim an illness they do not have for a refund on a non-refundable ticket. But he said Delta expects to be liberal with its three-month reprieves.

He said the airline considered a policy that only covered new parents. But he said the airline decided to make it open to more customers.

“It was very clear to me that keeping this narrow was not the right thing,” he said. “Everybody has a different circumstance that leads to travel disruption. Trying to box people in and leaving people out was not the right idea. We wanted to take care of all who face a life event, not just some of them.”

Photo Credit: Delta elite frequent flyers still get upgrades to unsold first class seats. Passengers don't like to lose elite status. Delta Air Lines