Here's what frequent fliers need to know.

By Eric Rosen
Updated June 01, 2020
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Airlines and fliers are facing a lot of uncertainty as the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread across the globe. Carriers have slashed flights, furloughed crew, and grounded the vast majority of their fleets due to evolving travel bans and restrictions. Travelers, meanwhile, have seen their plans put on hold for the foreseeable future, come up against quarantine rules, and faced issues claiming refunds for canceled flights.

As airlines have struggled to adjust their schedules, reimburse ticketed passengers, and even repatriate people from around the world to their home countries, one of the questions they have been slower to address is what will happen to customers’ frequent-flier miles, elite status and other loyalty program benefits. Now, at least several major U.S. airlines are providing travelers with answers.

Delta Air Lines

Delta Extends Status, Perks, and Sky Club Memberships

In early April, Delta was the first U.S. airline to announce that it would extend various benefits for members of its SkyMiles mileage program.

The most exciting news was that SkyMiles members who earned Delta Medallion elite status for 2020 will automatically have their current status extended through Jan. 31, 2022 – a full year longer than usual. Beyond that, though, Delta said that all the Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) earned in 2020 and 2021 will be counted together toward earning elite status for 2022. That should make it easier for some folks to qualify depending on how much they’re able to fly in the rest of this year and next. The rollover MQMs will also include any that are earned through annual spending on a Delta credit card like the Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card or the Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card. Just keep in mind that you will still have to meet the airline’s Medallion Qualification Dollar (MQD) spending requirements in 2021 for 2022 status. The dollar amounts range from $3,000-$15,000 in airfare depending on your tier, so plan ahead accordingly.

Travel vouchers and upgrade certificates will also be extended either through the end of 2020 or six months beyond their current expiration date, depending on when they originally terminated. If you bought a membership to Delta’s Sky Club airport lounges that expired March 1 or after, you will receive an additional six months of membership past your current end date. Those who purchased Delta’s relatively new SkyMiles Select membership, with perks like priority boarding and drink vouchers, will also get a one-time six-month extension.

If you earned another benefit with a Delta credit card, its expiration should be extended, too. Delta SkyMiles Gold Card members will get a six-month extension on the $100 flight credits they receive. Delta SkyMiles Platinum and Reserve cardholders with companion travel certificates that expire between March 1 and June 30 can use them to book and fly by the end of 2020, while those that expire between July 1, 2020, and April 1, 2021, will receive an additional six months of validity.

United Follows Suit… Sort Of

Not long after Delta’s announcement, United said that it, too, will extend its MileagePlus members’ current elite status by an additional 12 months through the end of January 2022. This applies to all levels from Premier Silver up to Premier 1K (but not ultra-exclusive Global Services).

If you were pursuing a higher tier for next year than your current one, United is cutting the 2020 qualification requirements for the 2021 elite year. The airline recently overhauled how fliers qualify for Premier status so that it is based mostly on spending with the airline and its partners now. Usually, you would have to purchase between $4,000-$24,000 on airfare in a calendar year, depending on the status tier you were pursuing and how many flights you actually took. For 2020, those numbers are being reduced to $2,000-$12,000 based on your mix of flights and spending. If you have one of the airline’s co-branded credit cards, like the United Explorer or United Club Card, you can also earn more Premier Qualifying Points toward elite status through spending (up to 2,000 PQPs with the Explorer and 4,000 PQPs with a Club card).

The United spokesperson said the airline will be extending all its annual subscription options, including United Club membership, Economy Plus, Wi-Fi plans, and baggage subscriptions by six months past their current expiration. Premier Platinum and 1K elites who earned PlusPoints toward upgrades will get a six-month extension on any set to expire before the end of the year, too.

American Airlines Finally Steps Up

Over a week after Delta made the first move, American Airlines informed members of its AAdvantage program that they, too, could expect to have their current elite status extended through Jan. 31, 2020. The airline is also extending memberships to its airport Admirals Clubs by six months. Elite qualification requirements in 2020 for status in 2021 are being reduced by up to half. For instance, it normally requires flying 25,000 miles or 30 segments plus spending $3,000 on airfare in a year for Gold status, but will only take 15,000 miles or 15 segments plus $1,500 this year.

Among the more innovative benefits American Airlines is offering as alternatives to travelers this year are being able to earn miles toward Million Miler status (and elite status for life) through credit card spending on a co-branded American Airlines credit card between May and December 2020, and offering elite members up to $400 in credits toward purchasing an American Airlines Vacation Package of $2,500 or more for travel between July 1, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2021.

While it was slower to the game than its main competitors, American Airlines stepped up to offer both standard and more innovative benefits to keep its customers loyal that were worth waiting for.

Southwest Companions Have More Time

The next major American carrier to announce changes to its Rapid Rewards frequent-flier program was Southwest, with news earlier this week that its A-List and A-List Preferred elites would enjoy their status for an additional year, through Dec. 31, 2021. If you have the airline’s ultra-valuable Companion Pass, which is basically a year (or more) of two-for-one free travel, it will be valid for an additional six months, through June 30, 2021.

The airline is also giving Rapid Rewards members a boost toward earning either or both elite status and a Companion Pass in 2020 if they are interested. To score a Companion Pass, you must normally earn 125,000 qualifying points (basically dollars spent on airfare, with partners, or on a co-branded credit card) or 100 qualifying flights in a year. For 2020, though, Southwest will automatically credit you with 25 qualifying flights and 25,000 qualifying points toward earning the Companion Pass, getting you about a fifth of the way there if you are doing it based on spending. A-List elite status usually requires earning 35,000 qualifying points or taking 25 one-way flights in a year. For 2020, though, Rapid Rewards members get an automatic boost of 15,000 qualifying points and 10 flights, making it much easier to achieve status if or when flying resumes.

While the elite-status news from Southwest was good, Rapid Rewards members who earned a Companion Pass must surely be breathing a sigh of relief right now that they will be able to put their travel benefit to use for an extra six months.

What Will Other Airlines Do?

These airlines' moves are both generous and smart business decisions. Frequent-flier plans are still loyalty programs at heart, and it pays to remember that. As airlines face existential threats due to the unprecedented upheaval in the travel industry, banking on their loyalty programs could be the difference between keeping customers engaged and ready to buy tickets when travel rebounds, or losing out on their business in the long-haul. Hopefully, other major carriers both in the U.S. and abroad will follow Delta and United’s lead and extend their members’ elite status and other benefits into 2022 so that they can enjoy them once they resume traveling.