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Southwest Airlines Makes A Play For Competitors' Elite Flyers

James Ellis
Southwest Airlines Makes A Play For Competitors

For most Americans looking to take to the skies this summer, their choice of whom they fly with boils down to whatever carrier takes them to their destination for the cheapest price on the most convenient route. If they complete the journey without significant delays or lost luggage, that's all the better.

But a small subset of travelers will grimly stick with one airline, resigning themselves to flights departing in the wee hours of the morning with multiple connections that crisscross the country. Why do these determined flyers endure such pain and misery? Most of them are chasing the carrot dangled by the airline's elite status membership, promising the devoted perks, upgrades and bonus miles in return for their continued service. Only 10 percent of American flyers fall into this category, but given that these are the travelers who fly the most, they are a hotly contested market for the airlines. Southwest Airlines' recent promotion, promising to match the status of any traveler already a member of one of its competitor's elite status clubs with membership in its own A-List club, is just the latest example of how coveted these elite, frequent flyers are to the industry.

If you hold elite status with other airlines, you might feel tempted by Southwest's enticing offer, but now is also a good time to ask yourself: Is it worth it to be loyal to any airline? It's a question both fresh-faced novices and grizzled veterans of the loyalty program game should ask themselves, and one you should be able to answer after examining what matters the most to you when it comes to flying.

What You Get

The perks and benefits that come with holding elite status with an airline differ from carrier to carrier and depending on your level of elite status. Broadly speaking, the benefits boil down to these categories:

  • Bonus Miles Earned: As a member of an airline's loyalty program, you earn a certain amount of bonus miles compared to nonmembers, which can eventually be redeemed for a free flight.
  • Free Upgrades: Members in most loyalty programs find themselves at the head of the line when it comes to getting that surprise bump into business or first class. Of course, members higher up in the elite hierarchy get upgraded before those on the lower tiers, so don't think your basic membership will have you automatically feted with caviar and champagne every time you board.
  • Waived Fees: Certain airlines let their loyalty members pretend it's the ‘90s again and waive—or at least reduce—fees for checked bags or changing your ticket at the last minute.
  • Expedited Travel: While elite status can't make the plane go faster, it can give you access to shortened lines through security or to the airline's front desk at the airport if there's a problem. You also generally get to board before the other passengers in the plane, giving you plenty of time to stretch your legs while the regular flyers file on the plane.

Come Here Often?

Traditionally, the biggest factor in deciding whether it was worth enrolling in an airline's loyalty program—and taking the effort to fly only through that airline despite other cheaper, more attractive flights with its competitors—was how often you found yourself on a plane. The average American adult in 2015 took two trips a year, which isn't nearly enough to qualify for any of the elite status programs offered by the airlines.

Even frequent airline travelers can find themselves stymied on the road to elite status, in thanks partially to changes by the airlines of what flights they consider as qualifying toward earning that status. Prior to 2015, most airlines still counted the physical miles a passenger flew as the main measure of how many bonus miles he or she was awarded, with the amount of bonus miles determining where the passenger fell in the elite status hierarchy. Now it's more about how expensive the ticket purchased was, which makes it much more difficult for casual travelers who fly to earn their way to elite status.

How many miles each dollar spent earns you varies with the individual airline, but looking at Southwest's A-List, you earn either six, 10 or 12 points per dollar spent depending on the class of seat you purchase. To qualify for A-List status, you need to earn 35,000 points per calendar year. While some of those points can be earned by spending money on Southwest-affiliated credit cards, you have to take at least 25 one-way flights to qualify, so if that sounds like a ridiculous amount of travel for a calendar year, a loyalty program isn't worth your trouble.

Beyond how much you travel and how expensive your tickets are, you should also consider from where you usually fly. Do you live in Philadelphia? You might find it easy to remain loyal to American Airlines, since Philly is one of that airline's hub cities and is certain to have plenty of flights available.

Finally, there's a difference between flying for business and flying for pleasure, with your company hopefully picking up the tab for the former. If your boss is paying for your ticket, you must fly often and gives you leeway to pick your own flights—rather than forcing you to take the cheapest available regardless of airline—then going for elite status is a no-brainer.

Another Road to Perks

So if you only fly occasionally, does that mean you have to forget about the perks and benefits that come part and parcel with elite status? Not if you're willing to shop around for an airline-affiliated credit card. These cards often grant users some of the perks reserved for elite status members, such as free checked bags.

These cards typically offer hefty miles and points as a signing bonus, something that usually makes them a more cost-efficient way of earning miles than anything you can get from flying with elite status. It's just another way of getting more value from your spending, which is a concept anyone can get behind.