The deception of Gold & Platinum upgrades

After 50 years of flying, three and a half decades of which I’ve been a member in most U.S. airlines’ frequent flyer programs, “lifetime” Platinum and Gold statuses have been bestowed upon me as a reward for loyalty by Delta and American.  At first glance it’s satisfying to receive the recognition.

But what does lifetime status promise, and what does it deliver?  My experience in the American Airlines and Delta Airlines “lifetime” programs has so far proven to be a mixed bag.

Everyone has her or his own notion of value in the airlines’ tiered loyalty programs. My top priority is to escape the wretched coach compartment as often as possible.  The forward set of seats in domestic first class offers a sanctuary of sanity compared to the stress of sitting in sardine class.

To digress on this subject for a moment, I noted in the mid-1980s that domestic first class service and coach class service had suffered a significant nosedive (with many more step-downs to follow). First class lost its aura as service declined, but it was still superior as a refuge from the back of the plane.  Therefore, I suggested at the time, airlines should be honest about their own class degradation and stop designating the front cabin as “F” for First Class, but instead call it “NC” (for “Not Coach”).

Nothing has changed in the intervening decades to make economy seating more tolerable.  In fact it is more cramped and uncomfortable than ever before.  Even the so-called premium economy on Delta (Comfort+) and American (Main Cabin Extra) offer, at best, an inch or two more pitch (front to back seat spacing), but no more width.  The seats there, just like the rest of economy, are far too narrow, permitting no room to work and barely enough to breathe. The best I can say for the so-called domestic premium economy is that the rows immediately behind the front cabin are designated as such, which means quicker deplaning for those seated there.

Coming back to point, no seats behind the front cabin’s flimsy divider curtain are remotely comfortable, and thus my top choice for benefit in a lifetime status program is to be upgraded.  Unfortunately, while both DL and AA promise domestic upgrades out the ying-yang for Golds and Platinums, the reality is that both categories, whether held perpetually (“Lifetime”) or earned annually, have become an empty promise of upgrades that almost never gets fulfilled.  Let me explain.

At American Airlines I am designated a Lifetime Gold AAdvantage member because of the 1,237,992 AAdvantage miles I have earned on AA since joining the program in 1981— though it seems like yesterday, 35 years have since ticked by.

That doesn’t count at least a million more miles flown before the carrier started counting.  However, no airline recognizes pre-1981 loyalty because they didn’t systematically track customer flying then.

So Lifetime Gold on AA is my reward for, well, a lifetime of stuffing myself into the carrier’s silvery aluminum tubes.

My American AAdvantage account currently has a balance of 34 first class upgrades, each one in theory “worth” 500 miles when used to flee economy for the front of the plane.  Each 500-mile upgrade is either earned or purchased ($40 each at present).

Thus a coast-to-coast CLT/SFO leg would require 5 such upgrade certificates, or $200 one way.  Again, theoretically, since actual upgrades are doled out according to a strict algorithm that includes such factors as AAdvantage status and fare class.  Higher loyalty status (Executive Platinum is the top AAdvantage loyalty category, two levels above Gold) and higher fares are especially important to ranking customers on upgrade lists.

Similarly, at Delta Airlines I am designated a Lifetime Platinum SkyMiles member because of the 5,338,738 SkyMiles earned on DL since joining the program in the early eighties when it was launched.  At Delta, upgrades to first class (domestically) are theoretically unlimited and cost-free, unlike the 500-mile ones either earned or purchased at AA.

In addition, depending upon status (Diamond is the top tier, a step above Platinum), Delta offers a few Medallion Program upgrade certificates that are confirmed one-way (see here).

But the so-called unlimited upgrades work just like the AA ones; that is, high loyalty status (Diamond) and higher fares earn a higher upgrade list rank than, say, Platinum.

Thus, in both the AA and DL “Lifetime” programs, it’s hard to get upgraded.  At Delta, because I am a Platinum, upgrades come through now and then, especially on lower volume travel days and on thinly-traveled routes.  To or from a busy city like New York, Chicago, or L.A., though, it never happens, nor have I been seated up front on a Sunday, Monday, Thursday, or Friday flight in recent memory.

But at least on Delta I can sometimes enjoy the “Lifetime” program upgrade privilege. Never am I upgraded on American.  Being a Gold, even a Lifetime Gold, means nothing on an AA upgrade list.  There are too many Executive Platinums and Platinums for a Gold to ever hope for a coveted first class upgrade.

More and more, too, affluent business travelers are paying their way into first class, which of course cuts the number of open seats available for upgrades, regardless of loyalty status.

How does this impact me?  On a recent four-leg trip to San Francisco (RDU/CLT/SFO and return), for instance, a gate agent told me at SFO gate 45A that I was number thirty-something on the upgrade list for the five hour flight back to Charlotte—and I wasn’t at the bottom of the list.  She told me that 11 EPs (Exec Platinum customers) were also going to be disappointed.

If eleven top-category flyers couldn’t win an upgrade, what chance does a Gold have? Or a Plainum?

Even on the short 33-minute flight from Charlotte to Raleigh on a late Wednesday night, I was number 21 on the AA upgrade list (I am “ALL,W” in the picture below).  The list had a total of 32 people hoping to briefly warm a front cabin seat; not one was upgraded.  The entire first class cabin checked in full.

ALL, W, me, number 21 on the 32-person upgrade list for a 33-minute late night flight on a Wednesday.

In sum, the most valuable “Lifetime” status privilege to me—sitting in first class after bolting from coach—doesn’t happen often even as a Platinum on Delta, and it does not happen at all as a Gold on American.  In both programs it is a false promise, which I resent.  Both airlines well know that the upgrades are not realistic promises, yet they continue to tout them with fanfare.  They might as well promise solid gold bars to take home after a flight because such largesse would be just as fanciful.

Lifetime Gold and Platinum status has other privileges, of course: such things as no bag-check fees, priority boarding, and priority seat selection nearer the front of the aircraft (assuming one’s fare basis reaches the threshold for advance seat assignments at all).  In particular, boarding early is important, regardless of seat assignment, for people like me who prefer not to check luggage.  Boarding late can mean overhead compartments are filled to capacity, the equivalent of airplane musical chairs.

Valuable perks, all, but at the end of the day I am still stuck in cattle class.

Dolefully, I view the first class cabin from my cramped seat in coach on a five-hour transcon flight.

Or perhaps I should not demean cattle.  After all, even cattle transport is subject to standards, aimed at giving the bovine beasts adequate space to reduce stress in transit (see here). As far as I am aware, no such standards exist for transporting humans aboard aircraft.

Flying in coach before the mid-eighties wasn’t bad. Much of the time it was enjoyable.  Piedmont Airlines and PSA (Pacific Southwest Airlines)—both superb carriers gobbled up and lost to US Air—didn’t even offer first class cabins, and we all loved their services.  That was before the airlines got greedy and reduced pitch and width, making flying in the back so miserable.  Only flying on the Eastern Shuttle between Washington and LaGuardia was as cramped and uncomfortable as it is now.

Most economy compartments were then okay.  The occasional upgrade to First Class was a real luxury.  I never thought of sitting up front as an escape from the back.

Nowadays, though, riding sharp end is a necessity to maintain my sanity. The airlines’ rigged system of promising upgrades to Gold and Platinum customers that they can’t deliver is dishonest and vexes me no end.

3 thoughts on “The deception of Gold & Platinum upgrades

  1. Same situation on United. Used to get upgraded about 75% of the time especially on international. Have not seen an international comp upgrade except once on partner Swiss for more than 2 years. UAL lifetime Gold status – used to be 1K before switch to revenue based system.

  2. Will, after ‘achieving’ Platinum status on Delta and receiving few upgrades, I decided to always buy and fly First Class. Yes, it costs more but it is easier on my blood pressure and much more relaxing.

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