Just how meaningless is the airline elite level?

Christopher Elliott, everyone’s favorite travel consumer advocate has an article posted on CNN that has me scratching my head.

Posted between a discussion of how American Express mishandled a loyalty perk, Elliot claims that airline elite levels are “generally meaningless”.

I’ll leave the American Express debate to Christopher, who has much more experience in dealing with those matters, and focus for a second on his statement about the elite levels.

My initial reaction is “are you kidding me?”. Then, once I calmed down, I decided to think about my own personal experiences with the airlines I fly, and how being an “elite” has helped me over the years.

Lets get one thing out of the way first – a “general member” or even lower tiered “elite” is indeed mainly marketing, and generally meaningless..

Just because you figured out how to sign up for the frequent flier program does not make you an elite, despite waving your blue card at the check in desk, nobody is going to upgrade you.

However, once you prove your loyalty to the airline by flying them enough, they’ll reward you with a shiny card and a pretty decent list of perks. For example; once I had flown enough with British Airways, they made me “gold”, which is their highest (public) tier. With this new card, I was able to use their lounges any time I flew them, and even gain access to their lounge when I was forced to fly a different airline. The card got me upgraded on about 1 in 3 flights, and when I flew with friends, they’d often upgrade them too.

I’d get similar treatment from United Airlines, Lufthansa and BMI. In fact, I don’t recall ever being loyal to an airline and not seeing them prove their love to me. Not once did I ever achieve elite status and wonder why I even bothered.

When I was stranded at an airport after missing my connecting flight, one call to the British Airways Gold desk got me rebooked on the next available flight, without having to stand in line and keep my fingers crossed that they could find me a seat. If I needed a last minute award ticket, the airlines were almost always able to accommodate me. If I booked a flight in coach, a quick trip to their website would get me upgraded, in exchange for one of their complimentary upgrade vouchers. On some long haul flights, such an upgrade could easily be worth $7500. You do the math.

But then it all dawned on me – Chris Elliot does not want you to know about elite levels, and would rather you not bother trying to achieve elite status. Because let’s be honest – the fewer elite fliers there are, the more free seats we’ll see up front for upgrades and the more free food is available in the lounge. At least, that is the only logical reason I could think of.