Airlines Are Widening the Gap Between the Haves and Have-Nots

Illustration for article titled Airlines Are Widening the Gap Between the Haves and Have-Nots

The world of frequent flier miles is a murky one full of requirements, points-earning, status levels, and benefits varying from airline to airline. It’s a confusing mess, but if you’ve flown much over the past couple of years, one thing is increasingly clear: Many, many people have elite status.


Look at any boarding area and you can see it for yourself: Elite fliers get their own priority boarding lane (or lanes), and on major flights—New York to Los Angeles, Chicago to San Francisco, etc.—you’ll usually see at least 30% of the passengers line up in these priority lanes. On United, which (against my better judgment) is my airline of choice, I typically see 50% of passengers boarding in the priority lanes on larger flights. That means half the damn flight is “elite.” And as Delta recently noted in an email to their elite fliers, “When everyone’s an elite flier, no one is.”

It sounds snotty—you might as well put spats and a monocle on this whole post—but they have a point: The bar for elite status has been kind of low if you’re a frequent flier, and it’s almost pointless unless you’re logging 75,000 miles and getting super status. There is often little benefit to flying 50,000 miles, which qualifies you for “level two” elite status on American, Delta, and United, when the perks aren’t wildly superior to what you’d get flying 25,000 miles (the minimum qualification for entry level elite status on those three airlines). So why bother going for gold when it’s not much better than silver?


If you’re not entrenched in the world of frequent fliers, all of this might sound like gibberish (and I promise to address and/or demystify this status-driven universe in a later post). But the point, as Josh Barro of the New York Times explains, is that the benefits for those fliers who are logging fucktons of miles are becoming vastly better than the benefits for those who are merely flying shittons of miles. And the bar for entry into any of these levels is now getting higher. 25 or 50 flights are no longer enough; you have to also be spending a certain amount of dollars on those flights to meet minimum “spend” requirements. Thus airlines are thinning out the elite ranks, one dollar at a time.

As Barro notes, airline elite status mimics our own great nation’s distribution of wealth; it’s elite status stratification. High-status flying becomes a more exclusive club, and that exclusivity makes the perks more worthwhile. For these lucky ones, the early boarding lines are shorter, more of the nicer economy plus or comfort plus seats are freed up, and they’ve got a better chance of getting an upgrade.

Meanwhile, the average non-status flier is forever left behind, faced with a million add-on fees, bad customer service, and tightly packed economy sections that leave one feeling like cattle at a CFO—minus the actual feeding, of course, as complimentary meals are usually reserved for those in business and first class.


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Image via Getty.

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Aurelius Robles

I always buy an aisle seat and wait until they’ve called everyone else before boarding. That way I wait on the plane for as little time as possible, and don't have to worry about squeezing by anyone. I’ve never understood the rush to get on the plane first (unless one has children, then I get it).