Airline secret societies

There’s a special type of membership level, but the airlines don’t want you to know about it … unless you’re dropping an easy $50,000 a year on full fare tickets with the same airline. The topic, which comes up from time to time, is in the headlines again thanks to the work of George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air.

American Airlines is mentioned in the flick, but the carrier won’t talk about the subject itself. No details have been released on how to attain these levels of air travel greatness, except the obvious: you need to be a rich frequent traveler or control a company where a lot of people are on the road all the time. The perks of this secret society include fantastic upgrades, bat-phones to experienced agents who answer on the first ring, priority check-in, lounge access and airport escorts when you’re layover’s about to go under. Simply, it translates to real customer service, a rarity in this industry.

Status has become a commodity, with double miles bonuses and other tricks helping frequent flyers amp up their accounts faster, a side-effect of airlines looking to make their passengers as loyal as possible. Because of this, anyone who wants to be a real player — e.g., American’s ConciergeKey, Continental‘s Chairman’s Circle and United‘s Global Services — will have to pierce the inner circle.

Only 20,000 of United’s 1 million program members were allowed into United’s program, which requires 100,000 miles or 100 segments. Delta is the most secretive, with Executive Partner status, which has been replaced by Diamond Medallion level status, requiring 125,000 qualifying miles or 140 qualifying segments.

Okay, so you can figure out all the basic benefits — just like every other status, only faster and bigger and bitter. And then, it isn’t hard to let your mind wander to such upsides as confirming upgrades 120 hours in advance (instead of 100 hours). But, this only scratches the surface. Forrester Research reveals that airlines know which planes have the greatest VIP density and use this to assign gate priority. A Continental passenger and Chairman’s Circle member — who took more than 300 flights and traveled more than 400,000 miles (no bonus miles tucked in there) — was able to finagle some time on an MD-80 slight simulator, because the airline values his business.

See, it is possible to get some love from the airlines. You just have to be ready to spend an absolute fortune … and make the airline need you.