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We’re living through unprecedented times in the world of loyalty programs, as most major hotels and airlines have extended their respective elite status tiers due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. These announcements have come in waves: Hiltonstarted the trend for hotel programs — followed by World of Hyatt, Marriott and IHG Rewards. On the airline side, Delta kicked things off, followed closely by United and then Alaska, American and Southwest).
As these updates were released, we received dozens of emails and messages with one general attitude: “It’s about time!” While it’s understandable that loyal travelers were interested in what would happen to their hard-earned elite status, this impatience with the announcements was a bit baffling — and potentially concerning.
One popular way for airlines to poach elite travelers from competitors is through a status match or challenge. If you’re unfamiliar with how these work, many airlines will offer temporary status to members who are interested in shifting their loyalty, and once they fulfill any flying obligations — which are typically much lower than the standard qualification thresholds — they’ll enjoy status for the rest of the year.
If you’re an elite traveler right now, your status is locked up for the rest of 2021 — even if you take no flights and spend $0 with your preferred airline this year. This gives you a perfect opportunity to test the waters with another airline once travel starts to return to normal.
For example, if you currently hold Delta Platinum Medallion status, you could initiate a status challenge with United. As long as you fulfill the PQF and PQP requirements on or after July 1, 2020 — which is pretty much a given, now that non-essential travel is all but halted — you’ll have Premier Platinum status through January 2022.
Then, instead of focusing your energy on requalifying for your current status — and since most airlines haven’t announced incentives to keep you traveling this year — you can spend the latter part of 2020 meeting these requirements, putting yourself in the enviable position of having two high-tier statuses as you plan travel in 2021.
Now, there’s nothing to say that completing a status challenge will completely shift your loyalty, but what if you jump to another carrier and realize it offers a better overall value proposition? Suddenly that elite status extension — and the requalification pressure it removed — has given you a chance to test the waters, and it could result in a new preferred carrier.
Along these lines, I think American may have the most to fear. With the announcement that Alaska has restarted its partnership with AA — and will be working toward full Oneworld membership by the summer of 2021 — it’s entirely possible that some American elites are eyeing Alaska status, especially now that you can earn elite-qualifying miles on both airlines. While we don’t yet know what American and Alaska will provide in terms of reciprocal perks, your travel experience on an American-operated flight might be similar for both Alaska MVP Golds and American AAdvantage Platinums.