Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Bloated Elite-Status Programs

The main reason I maintain elite status on Continental, the airline I fly most often domestically because I frequently fly out of Newark, is that I (and dozens of others at the boarding gate) get priority on two things: seat selection and early boarding.

Seat selection is important to me. I'd rather take a baseball bat upside the head than sit in a middle seat. In fact, for the life of me I cannot understand why the Wall Street Journal persists in calling its business-travel column "The Middle Seat," as all seasoned business travelers pride themselves on knowing how to "avoid" getting stuck in the middle seat.

(At least till recently, as airlines now slash schedules willy-nilly and change equipment without prior notice. My wife and I -- both with longstanding elite status on Continental; both careful to book our seats well in advance -- were recently slapped into middle seats on a Continental flight because they changed equipment and couldn't be bothered to accommodate the elite-status customers on boarding).

Anyway, even elite-status priority boarding is losing its allure because, thanks to the ridiculous inflation of frequent-flier status eligibility by desperate airlines this year, too many people now have status, not having earned it the old-fashioned way. Sometimes it seems at the boarding gate that the elite-status fliers outnumber the others. However, it still does get you on board earlier, meaning you have a good crack at stowing your carry-on in a bin reasonably near your seat.

I have to laugh when I read how airliners are making great efforts to sweeten their elite-status programs. What? Actually, the airlines are making great efforts to create bloat in their elite-status programs. Delta, as I reported some time ago, has added a whole new layer on top of its elite-status hierarchy, and acted as if that was some benefit to anyone except those people who fly 125,000 miles a year on Delta. All 29 of them. To others in the Delta elite-status program, it merely knocks them down further in the benefit pecking order.

Anyway, to get to the point here, Southwest Airlines has started a new program called "early-bird check-in." You pay ten bucks and you get priority boarding.

Says Southwest: "EarlyBird Check-in, which gives Customers [** my note: PLEASE, Southwest, stop capitalizing those common nouns like "customers" -- you're really creeping Me out **] the option to score an early boarding position by adding an additional $10 to the price of a one-way fare. The low-cost service automatically reserves a boarding position for Customers prior to general check-in, allowing EarlyBird Customers to begin boarding the plane after Southwest's Business Select and Rapid Rewards A-List Customers. EarlyBird Check-in is available for purchase beginning today, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009, for travel beginning Thursday, Sept. 3, 2009."

Southwest goes on, "An early boarding position provides Customers with the opportunity for a better seat selection and earlier access to overhead bin space, giving Customers the option to enhance their travel experience while creating incremental revenue opportunities for Southwest. Early boarding privileges are already included in the purchase of a Business Select fare and are a benefit of being on the Rapid Rewards A-List. All Customers are required to print their boarding pass prior to their scheduled departure."

Hmmmm. Now, Southwest's existing elite program works well. It's simple. Fly x number of trips, get one free. I like it.

On the other hand, the other major airlines are letting their elite-status programs swell up like that great big fat gourmand, Mr. Creosote, in the French restaurant in the Monty Python skit who the waiters keep feeding food to ("Just one thin wafer!") -- till he literally explodes.

More often these days, I fly US Airways, on which I have no elite status. But more often than not, I have the opportunity to pay a few extra bucks for a priority seat, and every so often, I have the opportunity to pay a little more, like maybe $100, to upgrade to first class. On AirTran, I've upgraded to first class at check-in for as low as 40. Without any elite status.

We all watch our budgets, but travel writers are full of baloney (need I say?) when they insist that the flying market consists only of people who want the rock-bottom fare, period.

Frankly, I'm willing to pony up ten bucks for a little more comfort and convenience. Southwest, ya got a deal. I mean, Deal.



Sean Harding said...

On one hand, I welcome the Southwest change -- one of the things I've always hated about flying Southwest is their seating system. I typically will only fly SWA if it's the only way to get a nonstop flight to where I need to go (I hate stops even more than I hate their seating system).

On the other hand, it seems like it could end up being just like the dilution you speak of in the other carriers' elite programs. For only $10, I'd think that a large number of people will bite. If enough people take them up on it, it won't be substantially better than the current situation. I guess if you really care, you should just pony up for Business Select...

Stealthmouse said...

I understand where you're coming from, but I know that AA, at least, and probably UA as well, are doing this not to bloat their programs, but because business travel is down so dramatically that they are actually on the verge of losing a lot of the top-tier and middle-tier frequent flyers, and want to maintain the numbers for loyalty reasons.

I know for me personally, I've never struggled to reach the top tier with AA until this year, due to travel restrictions at work, though I made up for it with several personal trips that will get me over the hump. But allowing for double-elite qualifying miles would also get me there without really making extra personal trips. I like to travel for leisure as well, so I don't really mind, but I think what AA and UA are doing makes sound business sense, and I have yet to miss getting the seat I want or getting a first-class upgrade, or getting on standby on a sold-out flight, so I think it's working.

kevin said...

I have to say, I don't like this idea of Southwest's one bit, not that I don't understand its appeal.

One of the nice things about Southwest, in my opinion, is that it's fairly democratic. No first-class section with wide seats and a bathroom that's never in use while there are lines in the back; no dedicated flight attendant bringing non-stop drinks while the masses wait and wait and wait for a fourth of a can of Coke over melting ice.

Everyone on Southwest used to have the opportunity to get in line in the A-B-C groups, and when they added the number order to the passes, that made it even better. Once you'd done what you needed to get your pass, you knew where you were going to be in the order of things.

Then they added business select and gave them priority. Next they created the A-List for their most frequent fliers. Now they're basically selling the right to cut in line - and that goes against the grain of everything Southwest used to stand for. Sure, it's only $20 round trip, but it's the principle of the thing.