THE LOWDOWN Fewer seats, more fees
DELTA Sharing coveted member-lounge real estate may be the least of Medallion elites' troubles. Now, any Delta elite member booked in full-fare economy class can get a free upgrade at the time of ticketing; before, upgrades had to be confirmed 72 to 100 hours before departure. However, an explosion of heavily discounted first-class seatson domestic flights will cut down the number of available upgrades, FirstClassFlyer.com" target="_blank">www..com's Bennett points out. "Add twice the number of elites going for upgrades," he says, "and upgrades could be slashed by seventy-five percent in some markets."
AMERICAN AAdvantage members who use miles to upgrade from discounted coach between the United States and Europe, Japan, and some Latin American countries will now have to pay $250 in addition to 25,000 miles for a one-way upgrade (this fee doesn't apply to other routes). Upgrading on a round-trip costs double: $500, plus 50,000 miles.
CONTINENTAL At the beginning of the year, Continental raised the fee on upgrades to BusinessFirst from discounted economy. One-way upgrades from some full-fare economy-class seats increased to $350 from $300. The fee for upgrading from some discounted economy-class seats rose to $400 from $300; for the most deeply discounted classes, fees rose to $450 from $400.
Contrary to what mileage experts predicted two years ago, the elite-program pendulum seems to be swinging back toward generosity. But every one of the latest round of changes—"simpler" fares, now accompanied by upgrade fees; lower status benchmarks, with increasingly difficult-to-attain benefits; clearer award-availability rules, with no increase in award seats—look like a shell game on the part of the airlines. If they shift their fees fast enough while drawing more people into the game, maybe the airlines can stay afloat a little longer. But by appealing to a wider range of customers, instead of those who pay the most money, the airlines are diluting the significance and benefits of elite status to the extent that elite programs are becoming irrelevant. What we know now: domestic and international economy and restricted airfares are at historic lows, making many travelers less patient with the mileage game—and more likely to buy their tickets outright.