Last Sunday morning I ran into an old friend at breakfast who used to work the gates for Delta at RDU for over 25 years, retired now. He greeted me saying how he fondly remembered ushering me on to so many Delta flights over decades, and always in First Class. I laughed and replied that despite having flown five and half million miles on Delta and being Lifetime Platinum, I sure didn’t fly in First Class these days.
He grinned and said, “Neither do I.”
Much has been written decrying the steep devaluation of frequent flyer awards through gigantic increases in mileages required. But to me, the highest value of the frequent flyer loyalty programs was being able to get routine upgrades to First.
In the eighties I bemoaned the degradation of domestic First Class service, but defended the cabin’s great value as at least a much-needed “escape from coach.” I argued that First Class had declined so badly that the fare designator “F” should be realistically replaced with “NC” for “Not Coach.”
Maybe no longer worthy of the First Class name, “Not Coach” was and remains far preferable to Sardine Class. Thus why I viewed the ability to get into First Class as the top privilege of the loyalty programs, not the free flights.
Truth is nowadays, however, even paying a higher Main Cabin fare on Delta, I am lucky to get a seat in Comfort+ with my Platinum privileges. Every year I get into the front cabin on fewer and fewer flights. The upgrade opportunity spelled out in the Platinum list of goodies is illusory if it almost never happens.
Nope, the only Delta flyers who get bumped up front with regularity are the super elites, and as we all know, some of those levels are unpublished. I don’t even try to keep up with the hidden elite descriptions any longer. After all, there are so many Delta levels that they fill up First and spill over into Comfort+ (itself an illusory “privilege”—heck, they are just narrow coach seats with free drinks—that is, nothing special).
The same phenomenon is true on American Airlines, where I accumulated a mere million-plus miles and hold Lifetime AAdvantage Gold status. Gold status on AA is meaningless except for accessing advance seat assignments (but not Main Cabin Extra chairs) and not having to pay for checked bags.
And forget about the Catch-22 of AAdvantage 500-mile upgrades. I have 36 of those 500-mile upgrade certificates banked in my AAdvantage account, and I have not been able to use one in over five years. They just sit there, all 36 of them, mocking me for my stupidity in booking American.
Why? Because as a peon Gold I never get to the top of the upgrade list. Many Executive Platinums don’t even get to the top of the list before all the First Class seats are gone, let alone an AAdvantage Platinum, so a Gold is always sucking wind.
Gold upgrades don’t even exist except on paper. We AAdvantage Golds are the unicorns of the airline loyalty programs, name-only sops to having flown just a paltry one million miles.
My decades of flying millions and millions of miles mean nothing to U.S. carriers any more. They changed the loyalty rules by parsing them to death, which of course they can do. So why should I book my old favorites?
Despite the overwhelming logic that airline loyalty programs are nearly worthless, it has been hard for me to book away from Delta and American. Out of habit, I always check them first. Shame on me for being so foolish.
But slowly, gradually, I have moved to Southwest, JetBlue, even awful Frontier here in the States. When booking overseas, I have flown on Emirates, Qatar, Air New Zealand, Hainan, South African Airways, China Eastern, KLM, Air France, Virgin Atlantic, and Latam Peru.
These alternative airlines have of course been utterly indifferent to my status on DL or AA, and the experiences have varied from sublime (Qatar) to miserable (Latam). Nonetheless, I do love the existential feeling of flying freedom, untethered from the now-meaningless promises of forty frequent flyer program years.
I intend to keep exploring new airline options. Being able to choose a carrier for reasons other than frequent flyer miles is its own reward.