Following unwanted management changes at United and unrequited management changes at American, I am re-examining my airline loyalty. Here are the arguments for and against holding loyalty status.
For and Against
With the ascension of Scott Kirby to CEO of United Airlines, I am re-evaluating my airline loyalty for the third time in three years and wondering if it is all worth the trouble any more. Sriram Srinivasan writes the Road More Traveled blog at TravelCodex and we both formerly wrote for Upgrd.com. He has long gone “free agent” despite being located in Dallas, home to American Airlines and Southwest with plenty of service on other carriers too.
I asked him to provide counterpoints to my arguments for airline loyalty as I decide if it’s still for me. I appreciate his timely response and helpfulness, he’s a thoughtful travel writer and if you don’t already read his work, you should add him to your blogroll.
Program changes hurt loyal members but the benefits of consolidating flights with one carrier still make sense. The freedom to change my flights, add bags, get on and off the plane quickly and sit in a reasonably comfortable seat are all better than buying these benefits piecemeal every time I fly. If a guest chooses to change their flight on the same day, even Southwest will let elites do so for free. For frequent flyers, that’s a very valuable benefit to have.
I think you’re looking at this from the perspective of someone who flies enough to earn mid-tier (i.e. AAdvantage Platinum) or higher status, but it’s not compelling if you fall in that 25k-50k/year band where you only earn low-level status. You’ve argued this a few times in your posts, but none of the airlines provides extra legroom seating for free to their lowest level elites anymore. AA was the last to offer a discount but they stopped this a year or two ago. Yes, status entitles you to upgrades to F, but they hardly ever clear, because the airlines aggressively peddle paid upgrades at a reasonable cost. You can also get your free bag just by paying $95 a year for the co-branded credit card. The SDC fee waiver is probably the most compelling benefit, though it depends on how much you use it. I think a surprisingly large number of flyers would find they pay less by taking the lowest cost option, getting a credit card or two, and just paying the fees when necessary as opposed to deliberately overpaying to maintain status.
Loyalty Points Consolidation
It makes sense to have diversity in miles and points accounts but buying tickets on whichever airline is cheapest or most convenient on the day doesn’t return a value for money spent. Even if the dollar amount is overall lower over the course of a year, buying all of the extras that status brings, it requires more from the flyer to manage, more to know about each carrier and their intricacies and delivers less as points are accumulated in smaller amounts spread over a variety of programs.
The four cities I fly most often for work are Houston, Denver, Charlotte and Dallas. Based in Pittsburgh, I have two obvious options for direct flights from carriers, United or American who have hubs in 50% of those cities and direct flights. For what it’s worth, Southwest flies to Hobby, Denver and Dallas Love from Pittsburgh as well but flight times are far more limited and costs tend to be much higher as I often cannot plan for business trips very far in the future.
If I book the cheapest ticket for every trip I would almost certainly find myself trading direct flights for inconvenient routes with connections. Even if only shopping direct routes, Southwest or Spirit will never compete on the frequency and Southwest airports are sometimes inconvenient (Hobby in particular.)
Fair enough, but what about for frequent flyers who aren’t flying to hubs and/or don’t live in one? If you end up getting assigned to clients in Midland, Tulsa, and Omaha instead, you’re connecting no matter what, so doesn’t it make more sense to go with the lowest-cost option?
There’s No Perfect Program, Just Pick One
- American’s operation is one of the worst in the business.
- United continues to ratchet up requirements while reducing benefits.
- Delta has the least possible trustworthy mileage program with the best operation and worst hubs (for my travel patterns),
- Southwest has limitations to its equipment, loyalty program and its route network.
- Spirit has a limited network and no loyalty program elite level, their miles expire nearly immediately.
- Alaska has a great program but useless for my business travel needs.
- JetBlue has a great product but a difficult route network for me (only direct flight is to Boston and just twice daily), limited network, limited loyalty program.
This is probably the most compelling argument in your arsenal – “they all suck so just pick one program that works for you”. My counterargument there is that remaining loyal in the face of all this terribleness just encourages the airlines to keep doing what they’re doing. Since you and Matthew plan to remain loyal to United, what incentive do they have to stop devaluing their program? Since Lucky intends to remain loyal to American, what incentive do they have to improve their operations? Etc., etc. They know their frequent flyers aren’t willing to inconvenience themselves to switch, so they can keep bottom-feeding because they know you’ll just keep coming back.
I remain open to reconsidering my loyalty to United, and Sriram raises some excellent points. My view is personal (routes) and specific to my situation (routes I fly, frequency and status level attained) but he’s right that those who fly less than 50,000 miles/year really should forget about loyalty to one carrier – that is, at least they shouldn’t chase it.
What do you think? Are you loyal now to one carrier or are you a free agent? Will this change due either to new requirements for status or management changes? Is he right or am I? Both?