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Airlines are making it hard for travelers to get or keep their elite statuses in 2023

For the past couple of years, hotel and airline loyalty programs have extended elite status in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sadly, that’s coming to an end in 2023 as downgrades will wipe out some travelers’ elite status because pandemic-era offers are expiring and loyalty programs are raising the qualification requirements.

At the start of the new year, United Airlines immediately raised requirements for its Premier status tiers. In March 2023, it would be harder to earn American Airlines’ Gold elite status. Aside from that, major hotels like Marriott and IHG promised to extend elite status through February 2023 only. 

According to Phil Gunter, Co-Founder of Status Match, an online service that helps people apply to match their existing elite status with status in other travel loyalty programs, this is a major, unavoidable industry event. In fact, Status Match’s data predicts approximately 1 million Americans will lose their airline status in 2023. That’s about 30% to 50% of all people with elite status. 

Why are loyalty programs cutting off customers’ elite status in 2023? 

Industry executives say the richer requirements are a product of the pandemic. During the peak of the health crisis, when flights were few and travelers infrequent, airlines lowered the annual thresholds that flyers need to meet to qualify for elevated rewards statuses. Meanwhile, those in possession of airline-branded credit cards kept using them for everyday purchases, accumulating points and rewards benefits with every transaction. 

Credit card partnerships helped keep airlines in business during the pandemic when there was scarcely any demand for air travel. According to CNBC, the miles airline companies sell to credit card companies to help incentivize consumer spending raked in billions of dollars.

Now that people are returning to travel, they’re eager to cash in those rewards points and are also increasingly reaching a little further into their wallets to enjoy the travel experience they’ve been missing for so long. It’s a phenomenon called, “air travel’s era of mass luxury.” 

Sure, everyone wants to enjoy special treatment and the perks that accompany elite loyalty status—benefits like early boarding, lounge access, better seating, free or discounted upgrades, etc. However, as Delta CEO Ed Bastian said in an interview, “If everyone’s special, no one feels special.” 

Besides, the extension of elite statuses over the past few years has led to issues for airlines, hotels, and even travelers. For example: Delta had to implement new policies to reduce crowds at its Sky Club lounges, including raising membership dues for elites. In November 2022, Delta cited “record number of visits” and “frustration for some customers who find themselves waiting in lines or searching for seating once inside” as reasons behind the change.

Meanwhile, travelers face fiercer competition for seat or hotel room upgrades. Additionally, benefits that purportedly offer express service, like VIP check-in lanes, get bogged down if too many elites use them. 

But it’s not all bad news! In fact, this year could bring more bonus point promotions and avenues for travelers to earn an elite status than ever before. 

Bigger spending, bigger spaces 

Delta, American, United, and American Express have been opening bigger airport lounges to fit more travelers this year.

In November 2022, American and its trans-Atlantic partner British Airways opened new, high-end lounges at John F. Kennedy International Airport with showers, bars, and lots of workspace. The lounges roughly double the square feet that American previously offered at JFK to about 65,000 square feet.

Several full-service carriers have also moved away from long-haul first class cabins in favor of more premium economy seats and larger business-class cabins that fit scores of travelers, particularly on long flights. In addition to that, many of the newer business-class seats are roomier and come with more amenities than first-class seats of the past.

American Airlines is planning to get rid of a separate first class on some older planes used to fly longer routes in favor of a single, expanded, business class featuring new suites with doors.
The airline said premium seats on its long-haul fleet will increase by more than 45% by 2026. 

Here are other “pros” about the airlines’ move to cut off elite status by 2023: 

  • For infrequent travelers: 

Travel programs are increasingly finding ways to encourage loyalty, even before travelers have earned elite status. For example: JetBlue now doles out “Perks You Pick” rewards, which consist of small goodies like early boarding once you’ve spent USD 1,000 in flights. American Airlines rewards travelers with similar, nominal benefits after earning 15,000 loyalty points. 

These small goodies can inspire someone to try to earn elite status or encourage less-frequent travelers to stick with that airline rather than go with a competitor on future flights.

  • For existing elite status holders: 

According to Status Match’s data, elite status holders represent at least 30% of airline cabin revenue. This means if you take these people out of the equation, an airline’s financials can become disastrous very quickly.

To prevent such a tragedy, airlines are offering more benefits to its biggest spenders. For example: American added more benefits to distinguish even bigger spenders. In 2023, it started doling out lavish rewards like high-end electronics from Bang & Olufsen for earnings up to 5 million points.

Coping with changes in the airline industry 

With airlines cutting off elite status this year, travelers are recommended to look for promotions to help retain their elite statuses. For instance: Alaska Airlines is offering a 2023 Fast Track where elite status holders who were downgraded can earn back their status by reaching a mileage-earning threshold before April 13, 2023.

Meanwhile, for those who travel less now, hotel and airline-branded credit cards can help as some offer automatic elite status as a benefit. Typically, those credit cards have annual fees, but those fees are usually a fraction of the spending otherwise necessary to earn status through travel alone.

Keeping people in the game is an important thing during this transition. The last thing Delta, AmEx, or anyone wants is for a customer to disconnect from loyalty, get a cashback card, or book their travel based on the cheapest flights or whichever airline has the best timing. That’s why many airlines now are thinking of new ways to make their customers stay despite moves to cut off their elite statuses this year. 

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