Sunday, April 10, 2011

Is It Time to Forget About Elite Status on Airlines?

Is It Time to Forget About Elite Status on Airlines?

I hear the whispers - you probably do too - that elite status no longer is worth the bother. New York Times columnist Joe Sharkey is the loudest voice in this chorus - “bloated” and watered down” are just two of the put downs flung by Sharkey,

He’s not alone. Any search of frequent flyer message boards turns up dozens of posts dissing just about every elite program.

Is elite status in fact a hollow perk? My take is that some of this grousing is on target - but a lot is simply sour grapes.

And the value of elite status all depends on where you fly out, and to where.

Personally I long was an elite skeptic - until one stormy summer day at O’Hare when I watched 80% of the plane fill with elites. When I got my chance to board, there was no overhead space - I was lucky my seat hadn’t been snatched - and I resolved to earn elite status asap.

The bad news about elite status: upgrades to business class from coach are harder to get as planes fly fuller and more companies have loosened the purse strings and are splurging on business class tickets. Fewer available seats means fewer upgrade opportunities and that is a negative about elite status.

But then there is the other big plus of elite status that I discovered on that O’Hare day long ago: elites get priority boarding on most airlines and that means boarding early when there still is room in the overhead bins. Being elite means never having to gate check bags.

Another benefit, at least on the airline I fly most frequently, is that elites get a wider selection of seats to choose from when buying tickets online.

A third benefit - at most European airports, for gold elites and higher at least on Star Alliance carriers - is free entry into spiffy airport clubs that generally put our domestic clubs to shame in terms of food, drink, and all-around comfort.

So what is there not to like about gaining elite status? It comes down to how you earn it. And what you pay for it.

For me, elite status is an almost natural by-product of where I live - about 15 minutes from Newark Airport and a very long distance from JFK. In the seven years I have lived here I have only flown out of Newark and that means I fly a lot on Continental, for which EWR is a hub.

The only way I will not be elite is if my flight schedule drops, a lot.

Would I fly Continental if another carrier leaving EWR was significantly cheaper over the same route? Nope. And we will see what I do when Southwest takes over a bunch of slots at EWR in an aftermath of the CO-United merger.

But, until then, I likely will earn elite status on CO and I will enjoy the perks that come in the package.

Bottomline: earn elite status as a byproduct of your travels, never as a goal in and of itself. When it comes to you easily, that is when elite is sweet indeed.

Robert McGarvey has platinum status on Continental Airlines for 2011, but suspects he will be gold in 2012.

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