High Flyers

High Flyers

Who are the elite? What are the elite programs offering their members? What do frequent flyers want? And what trends are we seeing?

American AAdvantage and United Mileage Plus are credited with introducing the first elite programs. The AAdvantage Gold program was launched in 1987 to the approximately top two percent of flyers and with a budget of only $100,000. United Mileage Plus was the first program to introduce qualification thresholds- an idea that has become the industry norm. Most programs won’t reveal membership numbers or the percentage of members who are elite. It’s interesting to note that American AAdvantage admits to an elite membership that is only five percent of the program’s total membership while United says that fifteen percent of their members are elite. To give you an idea of what an average program elite level membership looks like, we’ll dissect those of United before their most recent additions — 535,000 Premier members, 239,000 Premier Executives and 46,000 1K’s. It looks slightly different when you add in the Global Services and Premier Associate members but the ratio is about the same.

Along the way, thousands of frequent flyers have discovered the thrill of getting their first elite-level membership card in the mail. But has the gold tarnished? Have flyers and the programs who serve them become jaded? Yes, perhaps. But through all the changes and challenges, ups and downs, the final result is the same: Elite programs are there to reward and express thanks to the most loyal customers and those customers in turn express their thanks with loyalty and hard-earned cash going to their chosen airline.

For this article, we are examining the elite programs of frequent flyer programs only — we will examine the elite programs of hotel programs and others in a future issue of InsideFlyer.

Who are the elite?
To become an elite member in a frequent flyer program, most programs have imposed thresholds — those magic numbers set by the airlines where members are awarded different levels of membership based on how many miles the flyer has collected.

Collecting miles is not the only way to become elite. For years, elite members have been lured away by competing airlines. Airlines have been known to match the elite level of their competitors. And frequent flyers have been known to ask airlines to match their elite level.

We posed questions to the frequent flyers who post at FlyerTalk.com and found that they generally do not ask for a match unless they are truly interested in flying the airline that matches their elite level — they want to make the best of the match and only ask for it when they know that it will do them the most good. About 50 percent of our FlyerTalkers said that a frequent flyer program has matched their elite status (we should mention here that we suspect this number is probably higher for FlyerTalk members than the average member in the program because of the wealth of information found on FlyerTalk about getting your elite status matched). Just over 5 percent said that when they asked they were turned down, and about 43 percent said that they have never asked. Not all programs will match elite but most will consider the requests on an individual basis and make their decisions by whatever means they consider fair — their criteria are generally not published. And some airlines have been known to match elite only after a frequent flyer shows good faith by flying their airline a set number of times. For tips on getting a status match, see the master thread in the FlyerTalk forum Miles&Points MilesBuzz!.

Our FlyerTalk research revealed that of the elite members who responded to our questions, 46 percent are elite in one frequent flyer program, 31 percent in two, 15 percent in three and 8 percent in four or more. (Note that these are elite members in frequent flyer programs only — not hotel programs.)

The percentage of those who are lifetime members in their chosen program is just over 20 percent, but keep in mind that this number can be misleading since not all programs offer a lifetime membership level.

Over the years, the way in which members earn miles to reach elite has changed. In the beginning, if you flew and were awarded miles for your flights, all those miles would count toward elite status. That policy can only be viewed as the good old days for today’s frequent flyer. Today’s flyer knows all too well that it takes elite qualifying miles (EQM) or elite qualifying segments (EQS) to earn elite status. These miles are also sometimes called status miles. Elite qualifying miles can be tied into the class of service a person flies — where deeply discounted fares might get you miles, but not count toward elite status; or miles will not count toward elite if they were earned flying a partner airline or through car rentals and other partners or other variables determined by the programs in their Terms and Conditions.

The EQMs have led way to special promotions such as US Airways “Anything Counts” promotion at the end of last year when earning miles for purchasing items at the US Airways online shopping mall counted toward elite when normally those miles would not.

What are the elite programs offering their members?
Frequent flyer programs are constantly evolving their elite offerings based on finances, feedback from members and what other programs are offering. Perks of elite membership can include upgrades, lounge access, bonus miles with every flight, additional miles earned with credit card purchases, guaranteed seating, early boarding, waitlist priority, exclusive awards, waived fees, priority check-in, preferred seating, VIP treatment and exclusive award inventory tools to help members get those sometimes elusive free tickets. North American elite programs differ from international programs where lounge access is more common. And members appreciate different benefits depending on the airline and their elite membership level.

Years ago, a good number of the programs offered threshold bonuses when a member obtained a certain membership level, or a set number of miles as an elite member. In American AAdvantage or United Mileage Plus, a member could earn up to 75,000 bonus miles a year in this way and in Delta SkyMiles and US Airways Dividend miles, 50,000 bonus miles. But in the late 1990s, threshold bonuses started disappearing. American and United ended these bonuses in 1997, US Airways followed in 1998 and Continental and Northwest in 1999. One by one, the airlines stopped giving threshold bonuses until today only Air Canada Aeroplan and Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan of the programs we looked at for this article offer threshold bonuses.

Why did they disappear? A number of reasons, such as the growing popularity of mileage runs. More significantly, threshold bonuses disappeared with the advent of airline alliances, which saw high flyers accelerating their mileage accumulation because they were less likely to have miles spread over several accounts.

Let’s remember that before the threshold bonuses disappeared, the programs were already giving away elite flight bonuses, in some cases 150 percent of the mileage flown. With threshold bonuses, it was not uncommon for a typical elite member to earn 300 percent of the actual miles flown.

For instance, with the AAdvantage threshold bonuses, members could earn up to 75,000 additional miles. They earned a 10,000 mile bonus after flying 35,000 miles, then an additional 10,000 mile bonus for every 10,000 miles flown afterward (45, 55, 65, 75,000 mile levels) and then finally a 25,000 mile bonus when they reached 100,000 miles flown. And don’t forget the normal elite bonus of 25 to 100 percent for all miles flown. The traveler flying 100,000 miles actually earned 275,000 miles total and that was just from being an elite level member. With the growing international networks of their flights, the miles were growing to astronomical heights. Keep in mind that when frequent flyer programs were introduced in 1981, American and United did not fly internationally so earning 100,000 miles domestically was quite a feat.

Also of note at this time, elite status was obtained at lower levels. For instance, Continental OnePass elite levels were reached at 20, 35 and 50,000 miles, meaning that members were earning threshold and other bonuses at an earlier point. Today, OnePass elite levels are at 25, 50 and 75,000 miles.

Through the years, the airlines have struggled with how to acknowledge not only the most frequent flyers, but also the highest spenders. Delta has a fourth tier for it’s high-paying customers, what they call an “under the radar” tier for a subset of the airline’s highest revenue-generating customers. These members were recently contacted by Delta through the mail. As Jim Rausa, an IT Program Manager from Wayne, PA, who was one of the members chosen for the fourth tier said, “All in all, I thought this was a great gesture on Delta’s part! Definitely a very nice, unexpected but VERY appreciated holiday gift.” United’s Global Services memberships are also by invitation only to its best customers.

A few programs offer lifetime memberships for those customers who have racked up more than a million miles. United offers its one-million milers lifetime Premier Executive status (the airline’s second-tier elite level) while American offers its one-million milers Gold status (the airline’s lowest-tier elite level) for life and those achieving two or more million program miles are awarded AAdvantage Platinum status (the airline’s second out of three tiers). Delta goes a step further offering those members who reach four million or more Medallion Qualification Miles a lifetime Platinum Medallion status (Delta’s highest elite tier). One million milers get Silver Medallion status (the lowest tier) and two million milers get Gold Medallion status (the second tier). Additionally, every time a customer reaches a new level of Million Miler status, they receive an exclusive gift by Hartmann Luggage. These policies can change without notice. Of the larger programs, Continental Airlines, Northwest Airlines and US Airways do not offer lifetime status.

What do frequent flyers want?
Last year, InsideFlyer’s Freddie Award for the best elite-level program went to Alaska Mileage Plan with Continental OnePass following closely, and Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards not far behind. What’s interesting about this is that Southwest does not have a true elite program as most of us think of one — their approach is quite different. Southwest offers the Companion Pass program in which members become Companion Pass Holders when they earn 100 credits in a 12-month period. Companion Pass Holders may designate a companion who can accompany the member on any flight for free. The member may change their designated companion up to three times during the 12-month validity period of the pass.

In our mind, this demonstrates that elite programs don’t have to offer a laundry list of perks as long as the perk(s) is truly worthwhile to the customer. Having said that, the laundry list of perks is valued and, yes, expected, by a vast number of frequent flyers.

We took a very unscientific poll of the vocal and experienced frequent flyers who frequent FlyerTalk.com to see what frequent flyers appreciate and want in their elite program and this is some of what we found:

Among perks, the ability to upgrade wins hands down. The bonus miles an elite-level member receives as a benefit on qualifying flights follows. These perks are almost universally offered by elite programs. Upgrades are seen as the ultimate perk for many frequent flyers — everyone wants them and there’s a great deal of frustration on the part of elite members when they see their upgrades disappearing or becoming harder to use. “Don’t Mess with Upgrades” could very well be the frequent flyer’s motto.

After those two time-honored favorites, the list is divided between many different perks including preferred seating (many mentioning they appreciate an Exit-row seat, probably from those who are a good bit above six feet tall), early boarding and priority check-in. Lounge access is surprisingly low on the list, but we suspect that’s not so much a reflection of travelers indifference to the perk but rather the limited availability of free access through the North American programs. We also found that what the members expect and appreciate changes as they move through the different status levels — makes sense — the more they fly, the more they want benefits that allow them to travel in comfort. Kevin Hartmann of Dallas, who is an Executive Platinum in American AAdvantage echoed the thoughts of many of his fellow frequent flyers on FlyerTalk. When asked what he would ask the managers of his favorite frequent flyer program, he said. “If I could ask them one question, let it be this: I know that you are running a business, and the bottom line ultimately is important. To the business traveler, the experience of travel becomes a large part of life, and we endure in the hope that our loyalty will be rewarded by some comfort and respect. My question to them is how can you make 150,000 miles a year more comfortable and respectable, so that we do not defect to a career that will require no travel at all?”

Members of several programs mentioned that their favorite perk as an elite member is the general feeling of better service — that special VIP feeling that only comes with being elite.

As far as a wish list for members, other than the usual suspects of more/better upgrades, quite a few members of several programs would like to see one-way award options. As one flyer explained, there’s a large market of cruise passengers who would appreciate the flexibility.

Looking at the responses from members of the various programs, we put together the following list of “Have and most appreciate” and “Want.” We thank all the FlyerTalker members who gave us their opinion. Generally, the listings below list the most popular responses toward the top. We are not able to list all the responses here and have edited for clarity. For a full list, and to see the ongoing posts, see the FlyerTalk.com postings under the various frequent flyer program headings and search for the subject line “Elite-Level Members: Please Answer.”

Air Canada Aeroplan
Have and most appreciate:

  • Lounge access
  • Upgrades
  • Star Alliance Gold status
  • Priority check-in, boarding, phone line


  • Automatic upgrades, no certificates
  • Easier / lower award redemption for elite
  • Better upgrade usage
  • Discounted “anytime” awards for elite
  • Lifetime status
  • Using points for seat upgrades on Air Canada
  • Access to United Economy Plus seating
  • Use points to upgrade at airport
  • Ability to transfer upgrade certificates

    Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
    Have and most appreciate:

  • Unlimited upgrades
  • No change fees
  • Designated check-in
  • Priority boarding
  • The variety of partners on which to earn EQM


  • Ability to get upgrades on long-haul flights (seem to always be full)
  • Higher elite level than MVP/Gold
  • Lounge access
  • Access to elite security lines for all levels of elite
  • Time of purchase upgrade from discount fare
  • Special luggage service for first class/elite
  • Earn elite qualifying miles on Continental flights
  • Priority ticketing for cancelled/delayed flights
  • Redeem miles to get Boardroom membership

    American AAdvantage
    Have and most appreciate:

  • eVIP upgrades
  • 500-mile upgrades
  • Ability to reserve Exit-row seats in advance
  • Dedicated desk
  • Preferred seating
  • 100 percent flight bonus miles
  • Priority check-in/security
  • oneworld lounge access
  • Lifetime membership
  • Standby priority


  • Reduced or no co-pays for international upgrades
  • oneworld and partner upgrade awards
  • Better status recognition with oneworld
  • Full mileage and Q credit on oneworld partner airlines
  • Food on flights to Hawaii
  • Free Admiral Club membership for upper elite
  • Ability to book partner award travel online (eVIPS or miles)
  • Free luggage tags for Platinum
  • Priority luggage handling/excess luggage
  • Bring back threshold bonuses
  • Bring back International business class companion awards
  • Bring back lounge access when flying on an upgraded ticket
  • Bring back extended special menu selections
  • Bring back blocking the seat next to elite member
  • 50 percent flight bonus for Gold members
  • No service charges for phone reservations that can’t be booked online
  • Add economy plus section
  • Current domestic 500-mile upgrades for International flights
  • Add status level above EXP

    Continental Airlines OnePass
    Have and most appreciate:

  • Elite access: priority checking, security line and boarding
  • Unlimited coupon-free domestic upgrades
  • Priority baggage handling
  • Priority phone line
  • Free lounge access when traveling internationally
  • Elite flight bonuses


  • Priority standby
  • System wide upgrades
  • Bring back lifetime status
  • Elite level bag tags yearly
  • Blocking adjacent seat in coach
  • Ability to earn international upgrade certificates
  • Waived expedite fees
  • Free drinks for Platinum members who do not get upgrades

    Delta SkyMiles
    Have and most appreciate:

  • Unlimited domestic upgrades
  • Elite flight bonuses
  • 100 percent mileage bonus
  • Priority boarding
  • Elite check-in/security
  • Better customer service
  • Preferred seating


  • Ability to use vouchers/Delta dollars online
  • System wide upgrades from any fare, including day of departure
  • International upgrades
  • Ability to upgrade international flights day of departure
  • Companion upgrades based on elite member’s status
  • Ability to upgrade companion on any fare
  • Bring back free lounge access for Platinum members
  • Bring back segment qualification for elite
  • Free Internet access in lounges
  • Book Exit-row seats before day of departure
  • Status above Platinum for those who fly over 100,000 MQMs
  • Better lounge food selection
  • Waiver of ticket change/cancellation fees
  • Allow Platinum members to book one award itinerary per year at the SkySaver price, regardless of SkySaver availability

    Northwest WorldPerks
    Have and appreciate most:

  • Domestic coupon-free upgrades
  • Unlimited domestic upgrades and elite bonuses on all alliance partners
  • Preferred seating
  • Waived fees for award changes
  • Elite flight bonus
  • Dedicated phone line
  • Early boarding
  • Lounge access


  • International upgrade options
  • SkyTeam partner upgrades
  • Upgrade all revenue fare classes using miles
  • System wide upgrade certificates when crossing thresholds: 100k, 150k EQMs
  • Consumer product awards (TVs, DVDs, etc. like United and Marriott)
  • Benefits for making million miler status and exceeding 75,000 EQM yearly
  • Lifetime elite status
  • Dedicated security line for Silver Elites
  • Lounge access for upper elite
  • 100 percent EQM for Continental flights
  • Add economy plus section
  • Coupon for one free day in the lounge when requalifying
  • EQMs that rollover to the following year

    United Mileage Plus
    Have and appreciate most:

  • Economy plus seating
  • System wide upgrades for 1K members
  • Elite security lines/check-in
  • Dedicated call center
  • Advance preferred seating
  • Waived award change fees
  • The strength of the Star Alliance
  • Standby priority
  • United Global Services customer service
  • Elite flight bonus


  • Unlimited coupon-less upgrades for elite members based on availability like some other airlines
  • Domestic lounge access
  • First or business class inventory for 1K members
  • More upgrade inventory for 1Ks
  • More transparent with elite and upgrade processes
  • Online Star Alliance partner award inventory
  • Dedicated elite, responsive e-mail
  • Reduced price for Internet purchase of 500-mile upgrade kits
  • Enhanced service for upper-tier elites along the line of the AA EXP desk
  • System wide upgrades for Premier Executive members (earn or purchase)
  • Better lounges, even if I have to pay
  • Tiered time frame for award booking (higher the tier, the further away from the date of travel you can book)
  • Would like to NOT see status-holders using miles/certificates waitlisted for an upgrade being usurped by a cash-offer upgrade
  • Free Internet access in lounges
  • 1Ks should be able to make same-day changes for no fee based on availability
  • A personalized crown and scepter to be used on flights

    US Airways Dividend Miles
    Have and appreciate most:

  • Unlimited domestic upgrades based on availability
  • Priority boarding, security, check-in
  • Elite tiered queuing for upgrades
  • Dedicated phone lines
  • Chairman’s Preferred desk
  • Preferred seating at time of booking


  • Easier use of upgrades
  • Upgrade trans-Atlantic flights on all fare classes (or at least realistic price/class)
  • Partner airline upgrades
  • Elite reduced mileage awards
  • Waived fee for flight changes on a space available basis
  • No charge for standby
  • Million Mile Club / Lifetime membership
  • Rollover tier miles after 100,000 year
  • Bring back better service — better food for first class
  • Functional Web site
  • Would love a Welcome package when you hit different levels of Elite. I hear rumors that they exist but I have never seen one

    The Trends
    The trends of elite level programs are right in front of us. They aren’t going too much farther than where they are today, outside of the typical enhancements of product and the competitiveness of the industry. What exactly is in front of us? Well, it boils down to about 10 topics. Let’s take a look and see if you can identify some of these in your elite program today. If not, it may just be an announcement away.

  • Spending your way to elite. It’s no secret that for the past five years various programs have leveraged partners, notably credit card partners, to allow the earning of EQM based on activity that is non-flight related. This is perhaps the most drastic change in the 19 years that elite level programs have been on the scene. Good or bad? Fact is, all passengers are more “sticky” to an airline in which they have some sort of metallic incentive and if for no other reason, that seems like a reasonable explanation for why this is continuing.
  • Status Match. There’s not a program today in which you can’t trade some level of elite status for another airline. Why? Well for one thing it is the easiest way to pick up a disgruntled member from another airline. It’s also cost effective since literally it won’t harm you until they fly you and then they help you. The problem is, this liquid population of about 450,000 members annually become “free agents” at will whenever they feel like a change. Without a status match they would be more inclined to stay where they are but there’s no putting the lid back on this bottle.
  • Service Benefits. These will continue to change and look good, if for no other reason than that they are an inexpensive way to make the program look good — and depending on the benefit, make it easier to travel. Examples are United copying Continental with special Premier lines in at their boarding gates. The best example and frankly the most valuable reason to be elite — fast track lanes at the TSA bottlenecks.
  • Program within a program. With other executives managing the frequent flyer program for non-airline benefits and partners, there is a growing sense of detachment on who is really fighting for the airlines best customer. No longer is an entire team engaged in their best customers.
  • The silly statement from United’s CEO that they were looking at selling “Elite For a Day” earns the hog trough award of the year. Yes, it reveals how some airlines feel about loyalty. I think we all know people who would sell their soul for …
  • Return of Thresholds. While not a formal program for the few who have reintroduced threshold bonuses, the idea of keeping members engaged once they have passed that 75,000 or 100,000 high end of mileage earning is very much on the minds of programs. Many of our readers have long adopted strategies of changing airlines once they reach 100,000-mile elite status as they know that two elite membership cards are better than one. Definitely the buzz.
  • Gifting Elite. Several programs allow elite members to nominate someone for an elite level membership on an annual basis. Could be a spouse or business partner but this is actually a very proactive and useful use of elite memberships. If you ever travel with your spouse, you know how great it is when you travel together, but heaven forbid if he or she returns earlier than you. How quickly they become peasants.
  • The a la carte system of benefits. First pioneered by Aeroplan here in North America, it was tried by Delta but remains untested for others. Aeroplan swears by it and in the next five years, so will others.
  • Award inventory. We have been surprised at the dissipation of programs adopting a tiering system of award availability for their elite members. Once a hot topic, it’s lukewarm at best though we suspect that it needs to be reintroduced in a very public way. Heck, you bet we’d give our last mile to an airline that shows us we can use our awards.
  • And finally, the “R” word. God how we hate to be measured by how much money we spend. Get used to it. It’s here to stay.

    Elite Glossary
    BF: Continental’s BusinessFirst class of service.
    CRC: Crown Room Club, Delta’s airport lounges.
    EQM: Elite Qualifying Miles — Many programs allow members to earn miles from a variety of activities, but generally, only miles earned through designated activities count toward the achievement of elite status. See also “EQS”, “Q Miles” and “Status Miles.”
    EQS: Elite Qualifying Segments — A way to earn elite status through counting flight segments instead of miles. See also “EQM”, “Q Miles” and “Status Miles.”
    EXP DESK: Executive Platinum Service Desk, a dedicated desk for the American AAdvantage’s top elite tier.
    ELITE LEVEL: Additional benefits for members attaining thresholds of accrued miles or points. Elite-level membership usually allows travelers to accrue miles or points faster, provides special perks and grants special airplane seating or hotel accommodations.
    ELITE-LEVEL BONUS: Miles earned in addition to actual mileage as a benefit of being an elite-level member.
    ELITE-LEVEL UPGRADE: Upgrade to higher class of service available through membership in an elite level of a program.
    EUA: Continental and Northwest’s Elite Upgrade Automation, which automatically upgrades elites to first class if seats are available.
    EUG: Electronic upgrades.
    EVIP: Refers to one-way, system wide upgrades given to AA Executive Platinum elites. Eight such upgrades are “given” upon reaching Executive Platinum status.
    KK: You usually see the term “instant KK” being used when referring to Air Canada Aeroplan’s award seat benefit. “KK” means Air Canada will pull a seat from the revenue inventory and send it off to yield management to convert it to D or W class so the member can have an award ticket. This benefit is available exclusive to Super Elites or Elites who are willing to pay extra points.
    MQM: Medallion Qualifying Miles. See EQM. MQM is Delta’s version of EQM.
    PMU: Delta’s Platinum Medallion Upgrade.
    Q MILES: Qualifying miles that count toward reaching Elite status with any airline, i.e. NOT inclusive of any elite or class of service bonus which often are not counted toward Elite level. See also “EQM”, “EQS” and “Status Miles.”
    STATUS MILES: Miles that count toward reaching Elite status with any airline, i.e. NOT inclusive of any elite or class of service bonus which often are not counted toward Elite level. See also “EQM”, “EQS” and “Q Miles.”
    SSWU: Acronym for Special System Wide Upgrade. See “SWU.”
    SWU: Acronym for System Wide Upgrade. An upgrade award that can be used on any segment in an airline’s route system. Many of the major airlines offer SWU’s as a benefit to their elite-level members.
    THRESHOLD BONUS: An incentive offered to members of a program’s elite level. Additional miles or points are awarded to members who reach a specific membership level or “threshold.”
    UGS: United Global Services, elite-level by invitation only, was launched in 2003 as a way to recognize what United considers to be their absolute best customers.
    UPGRADE (UG): Transferring to a higher class of service or accommodation, such as from coach to first. Upgrades may be one-class upgrades or jump several classes of service.
    WAITLIST: A list of passengers requesting seats on full flights that might become available as a result of cancellation. Airline programs’ elite-level members are often offered priority waitlisting.

    Elite-Level Comparison
    This month online, you will find a chart comparing various elite-level membership benefits along with qualification information. Keep in mind that all programs have restrictions in regards to complimentary upgrades and other benefits. Please contact your frequent flyer program directly for full information.

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