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Elite Status Gets More Expensive

First Delta and now United have quietly added a “minimum qualifying dollars” ticket-price requirement for achieving various levels of elite status in each airline’s frequent-flyer program.

The basic math is simple: To reach each level, you have to fly a specified number of miles—25,000 for the first level—and spend at least $2,500 on tickets. Obviously, that works out to an average of 10 cents a mile. Higher elite levels on either airline keep to the 10-cents-a-mile formula.

The basic idea is simple: Too many travelers are earning elite status, with the result that too many elites are chasing too few of those precious upgrades. The airlines don’t want frequent leisure travelers to pile up status by flying on a lot of cheap tickets—or, even worse, to have business travelers take advantage of low-fare deals. These new dollar limits are established to avoid such “problems.”

Today, you can buy a round-trip from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., a total of 4,820 miles, for around $430. So to keep your dollars on par with your miles toward elite status, you’d have to buy a more expensive ticket. On the other hand, the least expensive legacy-airline Chicago-to-New York round-trip ticket, at 1,466 total miles, costs a bit over $300. So the dollars would more than keep parity with the miles. Ditto a summer-season Boston-to-London round-trip, at $1,150 for 6,530 miles.

The new requirement, then, is not overly onerous. Finding fares at less than 10 cents a mile isn’t easy these days, except perhaps during fare wars and industry-wide sales. But the airlines’ final objective is to limit the number of elite flyers, so if the current dollar requirements don’t do the job, airlines will keep hiking requirements until they do.

So far, we’ve seen no response from American or US Airways. But, as we’ve often noted, in the airline business, nothing catches on as fast as a bad idea. 

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