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VOL. 128 | NO. 143 | Wednesday, July 24, 2013

New Route

Local travelers seek new frequent flier programs

By Jennifer Johnson Backer

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For frequent fliers, the perks that come with elite status often outweigh miles.

As airline competition heats up, many airlines are offering elite customers a way to switch carriers and take their silver, gold, platinum or diamond status with them. 

(Daily News File Photo/Lance Murphey)

In the fiercely competitive airline industry, carriers are increasingly relying on “status matches” that go far beyond mileage points to woo top customers.

While mileage perks can be hard to come by and difficult to redeem, other perks like access to complimentary seat upgrades, waived baggage fees, special phone lines to airline agents, airport clubs, priority boarding, being at the top of standby and rebooking lists, and free room upgrades can often make or break an elite flier’s experience with an airline.

As competition has heated up, many airlines across the industry are offering elite customers a way to switch carriers and take their silver, gold, platinum or diamond status with them, rather than flying thousands of miles in a year.

After Delta Air Lines Inc.’s June announcement that it will drastically cut its flight offerings in and out of Memphis International Airport, some local customers with elite status may be casting a wandering eye on other airlines.

Airlines that provide flight service to Memphis International – like United Airlines, American Airlines, US Airways and Delta Air Lines – allow a customer to send one airline a recent statement showing his or her top status on a rival airline and the carrier will often match it and let the customer keep the status permanently if the traveler hits certain mileage goals within a set period of time.

Industry experts say status matches allow airlines to court the best customers, while offering clients an out when they grow disgruntled with their preferred airline carrier.

While some airlines like Virgin America advertise status matches blatantly on their websites, others do it more covertly. Virgin’s program allows a customer with elite status on United Airlines, American Airlines or Southwest Airlines to switch to the carrier’s Elevate Silver or Gold status without losing benefits at other airlines. The airline’s priority perks include free Wi-Fi, drinks on demand and nonstop entertainment, according to the company’s website.

While Southwest Airlines has announced it is entering the Memphis market Nov. 3, it might not be as easy for elite Delta clients to switch to Southwest. Like most air carriers, Southwest carefully measures local enrollment in its frequent flier program, Rapid Rewards, as one gauge of local demand, but sites that allow frequent fliers to carefully monitor status match programs like FlyerTalk.com or InsideFlyer.com say the airline generally doesn’t grant status matches.

Other airlines like American try to protect longstanding status members who earned their status the old-fashioned way by withholding some benefits from new status-match customers until they meet certain requirements within a 90-day trial period, an airline representative told the Wall Street Journal in June. The paper reported the airline sends status-match invitations to customers who have American accounts, but fly more with rival airlines. Customers with the most miles, generally receive the best offers.

United is another airline that openly advertises its status match program online. United is offering top-tier fliers with elite status on other airlines comparable status in its MileagePlus program through Aug. 31. United allows status match customers to upgrade for 90 days, but to extend premier status, fliers will need to earn a specific amount of qualifying miles in the 90-day window.

Soaring gas prices have led mainstream carriers like Delta to eliminate smaller hubs like Memphis and to route more flight traffic through larger hubs like Atlanta using larger planes. Other airlines like American and US Airways have sought relief from high gas prices by seeking merger partners.

Earlier this month, shareholders approved the two airlines’ plans to merge, clearing one more obstacle to a deal that could create the world’s biggest airline. While the companies expect to complete the merger by September, antitrust regulators still have to sign off on the deal.

These constantly shifting dynamics within the industry could lead to more customers seeking status matches down the road. The possible American Airlines-US Airways merger highlights new possibilities for elite customers. US Airways is a member of Star Alliance, but the combined carrier would be a member of Oneworld Alliance. The merged airline – if it goes through – is likely to court Star Alliance clients, as well as those with other airlines.

In Memphis, there still isn’t a clear path for Delta elite status passengers seeking other preferred carriers. While Delta is drastically scaling back its flight offerings, no other airline has stepped up to fill its shoes in the meantime.

That leaves many local customers in a conundrum: stick with Delta despite displeasure at the recent flight cuts, or switch to another carrier with less frequent service and fewer direct flights.

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