Just a quick word on today’s Middle Seat column from WSJ journalist Scott McCartney. In his piece, “Silver Status Loses Its Luster for Frequent Flyers,” Mr. McCartney confirms what many of us have known for a while. As credit card benefits increase to lure bank customers, airlines have had increased pressure to differentiate their elite status tiers to keep top elites happy. And that often means lower-tiered silver elites who fly 25,000 miles a year end up not much better off than that guy in the next seat paying a $65 annual fee.
When I started flying regularly five years ago, I aimed for and just barely reached Silver status with United’s Mileage Plus program, a status I aimed to keep for several years after that thanks to cushy benefits like free confirmed EconomyPlus seating at booking, two free checked bags, and the occasional upgrade or expedited check-in line.
You can get all of that with the United MileagePlus Explorer credit card now, except for the EconomyPlus seating. These seats almost disappeared entirely before Jeff Smisek decided, yeah, people like the extra legroom, but Silver elites can only move up to them for free after checking in–assuming any are left. Similar dilution of benefits have played out at other airlines. You can check out the article here, or email me if you find it stuck behind a paywall, but most of the facts are summarized in this figure:
These days I don’t encourage family members or friends to shoot for silver status with an airline. I used to. I would point out how an extra flight and some strategy with their usual travel patterns could get them that elusive status. Now it’s no longer worth it for most of them, and since they have a hard time understanding what I do with this blog anyway, I just encourage them to book with the cheapest guy who makes them happy, usually Southwest or Virgin America.
For the rest of you, I still think elite status has great perks, but you need to be able to reach the top. If you are a regular traveler, it certainly pays to try to focus your loyalty on a single airline. One of the interesting comments from the article is that all elites make up 6-10% of passengers at most airlines. It’s a lower number than I expected, and suggests top-tier elites may only be in the 1-4% range. That’s going to earn you some special treatment, as I’ve been fortunate enough to experience first-hand.