Will Airlines Extend Elite Status Again In 2021?

Filed Under: Misc.

2020 caught just about all of us off guard, and airline loyalty programs responded generously across the board, with virtually every program extending elite status by at least a year.

Now that we’re well into 2021, what should we expect from airline loyalty programs? Could we see status extended altogether again, or should we expect nothing more than what has been promised already?

What airline loyalty programs are offering in 2021

While no US airline has fully extended status by a further 12 months, we have seen most major loyalty programs announce some kind of initiatives to make it easier to earn status this year:

  • Alaska Mileage Plan has slightly lowered elite requirements, is offering 50% bonus elite miles for the first half of the year, and has rolled over some elite miles from 2020
  • American AAdvantage has reduced elite requirements by roughly 20%, and has rolled over some elite miles from 2020
  • Delta SkyMiles has rolled over all elite miles from 2020, but hasn’t reduced elite requirements otherwise
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards has extended Companion Pass by a further six months, and has given everyone a 20% head start to Companion Pass for 2021
  • United MileagePlus has reduced elite requirements by roughly 25%, and has given existing elite members a boost to kick off the year

It’s worth noting that outside the US we have seen some airlines extended status for a second year, including Cathay Pacific and Qatar Airways. That makes sense when you consider the extent to which these airlines rely on international travel, which is largely impossible.

Delta 737Delta SkyMiles has announced the fewest initiatives for 2021

I expect airline loyalty programs will offer more

This is purely speculation on my part, but I think we’re going to see the major US airlines either extend status for a second year, or at least make it considerably easier to earn status than current requirements.

What makes me say that?

  • Realistically it’ll be the second half of 2021 before everyone in the US who wants to get vaccinated will be able to do so; I’d expect that the average person can’t expect they’ll get both sets of vaccines and build immunity before August or so at the earliest (keeping in mind you get your first shot, wait a few weeks to get your second shot, and then wait at least a couple more weeks)
  • This doesn’t even factor in border closures, business travel being down, etc., all of which will prevent a lot of travel

At the moment consumers are in control, and not airlines. It would be extremely bad form for airlines to expect people would be able to qualify with 75-80% of normal requirements given this window.

People shouldn’t be punished if they’re not comfortable flying right now, and it’s not in the best interest of airlines to lose loyal business travelers who just don’t have a reason to fly.

I think we’ll see US airlines offer more for frequent flyers

What I think airline loyalty programs will do

Overall loyalty programs have done a good job responding quickly based on the information they have. Understandably no one actually knows how this situation will evolve.

I’ve spoken to the heads of quite a few loyalty programs in the past few months, and they’ve consistently emphasized that they’re ultimately making educated guesses and then adjusting as needed.

How do I see this evolving? I could see one of three things happening with US airline loyalty programs:

  • Elite status is just extended altogether for another year, which I think is probably most likely
  • Elite requirements will be cut even further for 2021, so that they’re half of previous levels, or maybe even less
  • Elite requirements won’t be cut proactively, but in early 2022 there will be some attainable way to maintain the status you previously had with a challenge

I think we might see airlines extend status by another year

How I’m feeling about my airline elite status

In my case the only airline elite status I have is Executive Platinum with American AAdvantage. As of now, for 2021 the program is requiring 80,000 elite qualifying miles and 12,000 elite qualifying dollars.

Let’s forget the mileage requirement for a moment — that revenue requirement is completely outrageous given how low airfare is nowadays:

  • You earn 100% elite miles for most economy fares and 200% elite miles for most business class fares
  • In other words, you’d need to average 15 cents per mile in economy and 30 cents per mile in business class to meet the revenue requirement based on those number of flown miles

I would legitimately have to work hard to find fares that are so expensive in this environment.

American’s revenue requirement is almost unattainable with current airfare

Bottom line

Airline loyalty programs are doing the best they can to respond to these unprecedented circumstances. They were right to announce eased restrictions for 2021, but personally I think this is only the beginning.

At this point I feel comfortable saying that it’s not realistic for airlines to expect people to fly in the first half of the year based on the current state of vaccines. That’s not to say people can’t or shouldn’t fly, but rather that airlines should respect if loyal flyers don’t want to go anywhere right now.

With that in mind, I expect we’ll see US programs either extend status by another year, or significantly reduce elite requirements further.

What are your expectations when it comes to airline elite status for 2021?

Comments
  1. Ben, one thing not listed is that AS is continuing their 150% EQM until the end of June. I think this is a sign that most of the programs will see how things look with Covid by June and lower quals or add EQM. Most programs are all about reaching a target % of customers as elites and will add or subtract to hit those goals. They still have plenty of time in the year to adjust as they gather data.

  2. Lucky, I have flown throughout the pandemic as an essential worker. In 2020 I had 155 segments but only a 20k spend. The fares are so low (not complaining) and without my usual International flights the spend thresholds are much harder to reach. With so many not flying I was hoping AA would do something special for those who flew with them, like when I was on flights in April with just 6 passengers.

  3. Not material to your point, but the JNJ will be a single dose. Further, it still is slightly inconclusive how transmissible it is from people who have vaccinated and if vaccinations will have the same effectiveness on new strains, so there is likely to be people who continue to not travel out of abundance of caution, continued restrictions and quarantines, schools still not fully in person etc.

  4. I think airlines got too emboldened by fall holiday travel, people going to Mexico, Florida, and Hawaii, or really much of anywhere driving daily pax back up to 1 million, covid levels staying steady, and the reality that covid might just become permanent and we would have to go back to life with it. That is the time in which they released their 2021 programs. Then covid cases went crazy, new strands were popping up every day, shutdowns rolled back with a vengeance, and with news of a vaccine, people re-assessed their risk/benefit and had a renewed ability to deny themselves immediate travel knowing there was an end in sight. Signs of special international travel corridors and testing based bubbled vanished in favor of even stricter border crossing requirements. Now airlines have slashed main cabin fares to what a checked bag fee costs and you can fly in first for sub $100 fares. No one can think vaccines will roll out fast enough (or countries will figure out how to verify and accept them) to change this until maybe the last quarter of 2021, likely into 2022 so they will have to adjust their expectations and requirements of their members sooner or later. After all what value is there even in having status during days when you can just buy first class tickets on the cheap and there are basically no other benefits to be enjoyed until restrictions and reductions in service go away?

  5. I really hope they continue the extension of status. My United GS status is pretty much the best thing about me! It’s sad, but being an elite FF is really the only thing that keeps me going!

    Any other elite FF’s out there feel the same?

  6. Hi Lucky,

    Also think everybody’s status will be renewed by just a year, but what’s your view on how loyalty programs will react to certain people holding status who are outside of their “home market”?

    Just to give an example of my situation; I’m Asiana Diamond and Delta Gold based in Japan. If Japan would ban international travel (which they did from March to September last year for foreign residents) renewing status would be almost impossible.

    Unlikely hypothetical case of course, but with the vaccination speed between countries differing so much, going back to “normal” worldwide might take a while.

  7. I’m an essential medical worker and have just started traveling for work again.
    It’ll be Hawaii this month and next. Was last there in December.
    Entry requirements are a hassle but improving.
    I’m MM Platty with UA and have just been traveling on CC spend miles with HA and AS since they’re non-stop from my home city.
    My quarterly travel to Asia has stopped for who knows how long.
    If UA doesn’t extend my status or lower the requirements this year, I’ll drop them and move to Alaska on a status challenge in October.

  8. Lufthansa Miles&More reduced qualification requirements by offering 2X status miles plus credit card spending. You sill have to fly to meet the overall requirements, since credit card spending miles are limited to 30K. Overall it looks achievable.

  9. Ben,

    Are you aware that alliances limit the number of elites any alliance member may have? If you exceed the threshold, there are penalties.

    Usually, there’s like ~10% of previous-year elites which fail to requalify. And there are people qualifying for the first time, usually roughly 10% of existing elites.

    Clearly, there are WAY fewer people qualifying for the first time. However, if you extend everybody, your pool of elites is growing considerably. Basically, nobody is removed from the pool except for people cancelling credit cards (but that’s lower tiers only) and people dying off.

    So potentially, you’re running into a big problem if you extend all elites as you’re hitting that ceiling the alliance grants you…

  10. I think there could be a fourth option–modified extension. For this year, Delta just extended everyone. Not only do have still have status when you do fly, but platinum and diamond elites got to choose another round of elite benefits (miles, upgrade certificates, etc.). I could see them extending status, but limiting or eliminating elite benefit choices, unless you organically qualify. So I may still get upgrade priority when I do fly Delta in 2022 (which doesn’t cost them much), but I won’t necessarily be able to pick up 70K miles in elite benefit choices. That way people who are flying get some extra reward.

    Other options would be to not extend status, but rollover qualifying miles to 2022. Extension of upgrade certificates would also be nice. I had global and regional upgrade certificates that were extended from January to July 2021. I doubt I will fly a long haul flight by that time.

  11. I was happy when AA and Hilton extended my EXP and Diamond status for 2021, I have not travelled since Feb 2020 so I have not used any of the benefits, if they extend them to 2022 they will get my business, if not then I will be a freea man

  12. It will be interesting, but I think we will see air traffic numbers easily take out the fall highs starting in the spring. Warmer weather, plus a critical mass of vaccinated people, combined with the reopening of leisure demand in a lot places, will start to have an impact in May. So flying will definitely be up, domestically. There question is will business travel come back – looking more like a fall event if anything. So airlines will have to react to increased flying, but many of their previously loyal customers won’t be flying – will need to calibrate that

  13. Within all three trials, Pfizer, Moderna, and J&J, there have been one hospitalization and no deaths.

    So we should dispense with this “we don’t know if vaccinated people can still transmit covid” argument. If we can reduce the severity of covid with the vaccine down to the flu, if countries cannot open because they can’t vaccinate its citizens then it’s on them.

  14. I was really hoping that Southwest would do what they previously made it sound like they would do. At the end of last year, they made it sound like the flights from last year (I flew a lot between January and March) would count toward what was needed to keep A-List status through 2022. At the start of this year, they changed it and although they cut the number of flights needed, it is still a lot harder to maintain without flying a lot. I would greatly appreciate it if Southwest would extend for another year.

  15. If the recovery isn’t swift, by perhaps mid summer, then I believe they will extend status another year. A lot of loyalty customers may choose to switch carriers if their their status lapses and I’m sure the airlines (and hotel chains) are acutely aware of that.

  16. Definitely a status match if they dont extend.

    It all depends on how OPM flying will do in 2021. No OPM flyers flying to make money for their corporate overlords = no elites.

  17. United Airlines is my air carrier of choice.

    Speaking of airlines and hotels extending status, I am surprised that United did not extend the expiration date for lounge passes that are part of the perks of a passenger paying the annual fee for the related credit card called MileagePlus Explorer Card through Chase Bank.

    When I called United and Chase Bank to ask about the expiration dates, I was told that the lounge passes had “already been extended for three months.” Three months? Did they forget that travel has been restricted for almost one year?

    The persons on the phone told me that the expiration date of my lounge passes will not be extended again.

    The decision to not extend the lounge pass expiration dates is insensitive considering the pandemic and travel prohibitions during the past eleven months.

    Hopefully, United will revisit this issue and realize the unused lounge passes totally relate to the pandemic.

  18. Whatever they do, there’s no reason to announce it anytime soon. They need to capture the travelers they have now.

    I wouldn’t expect anything until August/September, unless there is a strong indication that demand will be peaking late in the year. In which case they will want to make status accessible to entice travelers.

  19. It’s just laughable how of touch US airlines are with reality. There is ONE solution needed, and that is for the government to stop being stupid (impossible, I know) and doling out public money to subsidize these behemoths. It will be painful, but there’s no way they will rationalize their route networks, workforces, and even loyalty programs until they are forced by the market to match capacity with demand. This will not be a simple, quick recovery (look at the news out of S Africa and the AstraZeneca vaccine), so the sooner airlines get out of the government trough, the sooner they can begin to rebuild their businesses THE RIGHT WAY.

  20. The 2021 extension was lovely to do. However on United I made 1k at the reduced requirement. And with the promotion they started 2021 with I don’t think I will have a problem qualifying for 2022. So why should those who haven’t traveled at all still have the same status as me for 2 whole years? It doesn’t seem fair when I have continued to spend my money with them. I understand the arguments for an extension yet still not fair.

  21. I also think they will renew. Very few people (other than readers of OMAAT and its ilk) make elite status purely based on leisure travel. Business travel fills the planes and pays the bills. I suspect that it will be very late in 2021 (assuming the variants don’t mess things up further) before business travel starts to meaningfully ramp, and even that may be optimistic. Currently, I’m not *allowed* to fly without getting it cleared by my company. I don’t see that changing until the fall at the earliest.

    Remember the numbers we’re talking about from a vaccination perspective. The government is patting itself on the back for vaccinating 2.2M people on Saturday. Great – at that rate it will only take another 9 months to vaccinate everyone (assuming 2 doses per person). We’re in this for a long time.

    Fundamentally, if someone isn’t flying, extending their elite status is a basically costless exercise. It’s a lot cheaper for an airline to incur that nominal additional cost and keep a normally lucrative business traveler “locked” into their ecosystem by assuring that their benefits will be there when business travel returns, than it is to try and pry them back once they’ve tried another carrier that they might like better.

  22. @Mary – I hear you about the “fairness” side, but as you know, these programs aren’t about “fairness” to passengers. They’re about generating as much repeat revenue for the airline as possible. That comes from not losing people to other programs.

  23. As an Alaska 75K member, I was thankful that I had my status extended for 2021. However, it looks certain that I will not even get near a plane until 2022. My routes are almost entirely out of Seattle to Asia and Australia (100,000 miles per year mixture business and economy class) on partner airlines with some USA domestic Alaska flights (20,000 miles per year). I never imagined I would drop out of status. The main reason for reduction of flying is simply that Australia / New Zealand and the Philippines remain closed.

    I would be most loyal to Alaska Airlines if they extended for another year. Otherwise it would leave me with little option but to status match to another airline in order to keep some sort of status for 2022.

  24. @Mary, I am in the same boat as you: UA 1K earned the hard way through personal travel trying to renew with personal funds. The reduced requirements help but still cost $$$. Hope United doesn’t give away status.

  25. “I would legitimately have to work hard to find fares that are so expensive in this environment.”

    This is surprising as I had no trouble finding high fares. I would be interested to see what you are searching and finding. A random test search of AA.com MIA-HND via DFW in September (7-14 SEP) and I saw a business class flight for $8783. Now, MIA to Europe seems to be relatively cheap – but there are definitely high fares out there.

  26. @Steve Lufthansa Miles&More still hasn’t extended status for those of us that qualified for Senator in 2019. The 2X status miles for 2021 is a slap in the face.

  27. Qantas was fairly quick to extend elite status for a year when the pandemic’s effects on travel became apparent. I was within a few months of failing to retain Platinum status and counting whether I could even reach Gold when it happened. QF elite status years end at the end of the month you joined, not the end of the calendar year. They then began granting status credits in the new status year to make up for the lack of opportunities to fly with our international and frequently our state borders closed. They gave me 800 of the 1200 I would need to retain Platinum in the current status year. Most recently they have waived the requirement to earn all the remaining credits and will extend status if you fly one sector on Qantas before the end of the status year. They will also roll over any earned credits into the following year (i.e. not the ones they gave out free). I have just under 4 months to do that, so I’m pretty happy with how they’ve handled it.

    Today they have announced unlimited free date changes for 12 months on domestic and trans-Tasman flights, although you will have to pay the difference if the new flight is at a higher fare. They also announced a hot meal service on most flights and complimentary beer and wine in domestic economy.

  28. I see absolutely no material and meaning recovery to business travel until 2023 at the earliest. That leads me to believe that lower earning requirements instituted this year will remain into effect next year. I doubt status will get extended and I also doubt airlines like AA will have any kind of rollover promotion. After awhile airlines are going to accept that flyers not flying for years does nothing for their bottom line.

  29. Our department’s annual travel budget for FY 21-22 has been cut in half, basically assuming very little or no travel until the last quarter of 2021. This would seem to be a reasonable expectation, and I would not be surprised if this viewpoint is pretty common in the business community.

    And it bodes poorly for many of us retaining status next year without some help. It’s not that we don’t want to (or aren’t willing to) travel, it’s that we simply can’t. So yes, I am hoping that the airlines extend status one more time,

  30. Strategically reached AA EXP in December 2019, perfect timing ha! Still managed to utilize all 4 SWU’s on long-haul international flights before Mid May 2020 so no sour grapes here.

    At most 2021 will be NYC-AKL return (NZ citizen and willing to quarantine), 4 or so domestic flights rtn (JFK-LAX), and potentially NY-LHR (UK citizen, just need US boarders to ease up on EU/UK travelers).

    Even with that schedule, hitting Platinum Pro is a stretch and frankly expensive. Considering I’m sitting on 500k+ points across AA, Amex, Chase, and AS I could easily (and cheaply) take care of my 2021 travel needs in J.

    Regardless, not planing on leaving the couch until Q3 so I guess I just wait and see what goes down.

  31. Between the rollover ‘offers’ and 2x campaign (UA for Q1), I think US3 are seeking additional revenue from the same FF pool(s). Practically, I see them launching more campaigns towards the end of the year if the demand remains low. In doing so, they could retain the loyal members as well as source additional top-line revenue instead of giving out statuses for nothing. In the dire environment of RM, I think US3 would like any revenue stream possible.

  32. 1)
    @ Mary and PM1: I am with Greg. If you believe that “Being fair to you” is United’s (or any other program’s) motivation, I have a cheap bridge to sell you. What they want is not to lose clients to other carriers and, since the first instinctive reaction when losing one’s status is looking elsewhere, they need to protect their turf.

    2)
    This is why some carriers, often minor but not always, are rushing to re-extend or offer a status match. My bet is that more will follow, but probably not too early: Once you are extended way before your status expiration date you have no incentive to keep flying your membership airline and are able to test something else if you travel at all.

    3)
    And by the way, it takes all the genius of TAP Air Portugal to botch as they are doing their status match program by not only being ridiculously red-tape but also by not providing (unless you pay extra) their program credentials (membership card) once you are in, thus preventing you from accessing the benefits and lounges of other *Alliance carriers. I suddenly understood why the Brazilians have Portuguese jokes.

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