Most of us live a two-wallet reality. Our main wallet contains the essentials: cash, government identification, credit cards, and passport-sized photos of loved ones from “the awkward years.” The second wallet, however, is a different story.

Packed with colored plastic and the promise of lifetime rewards, the second wallet, no doubt a Kenneth Cole brown leather billfold from the late 90s stuffed at the back of a desk drawer, contains loyalty cards. We have them; we use them; we forget to use them; we don’t even remember when we signed up for them. Possibly to receive a discount on seductive Egyptian cotton sheets, or perhaps to experience, but once, World Traveller Plus on a London-bound British Airways 787 from Toronto. We ask therefore: Were the plush seats and extra inches of legroom worth the sign-up hassle for the measly Avios (currency for British Airways’ loyalty rewards program, Executive Club)?

Absolutely, we assure ourselves.

But now, as Executive Club members (fancy!), will we ever experience the thrill of a late-night transatlantic upgrade again? Survey says: no. And why? Because according to the oft-quoted, unwritten rule of marketing, we (and most people) do not make up the 20% of the market who bring in 80% of a company’s profit. The looming reality of “cattle class” comes to a head, as cheap mimosas and salt-stained red boarding carpets become but a distant memory.

The issue at hand, however, is that even frequent-flyers are now being packed sardine-tight into economy class seats, somewhere back by me in row 34. Often characterized as on-the-go suits who would never be caught dead in (gasp!) Y class, AKA Economy, many frequent flyers in fact fall outside of this stereotype. However, with airline loyalty programs imposing new, often unattainable mileage and spending requirements, even more have been stripped of any of the tangible benefits that once came from their supposedly elite position in the commercial air travel loyalty game.


Elite status may give you priority boarding but is the red (or blue) carpet really worth it? Photo by Larry Johnson via Flickr.

What they are left with is a top tier title without the top tier rewards, and a complex marketing structure which revolves around ego and status, perpetuated by an ever-expanding choicelist of classed “premium” options. In this system, it is where you fall on the eliteness spectrum that matters.

The question of eliteness was recently identified in Josh Barro’s New York Times piece “Facing Elite Bloat, Airlines Move the Goal Posts,” in which he defines the concept of ‘elite bloating’ with the simple proposition that, “If everyone’s an elite flier, no one is.” And like many graduated class systems, frequent-flyers is decidedly and deliberately complex.

The hierarchy of passenger status dictates that the top and bottom tiers will most likely always be so. Big spenders—people just one tax bracket below the private-jet crowd—receive big treatment and, although airlines appreciate their business, the occasional flyer does not participate in the status game. The most tiered status group, therefore, is our business travellers. And, like aristocracy, titular nuance plays a role in how one self-identifies in the flyer status game, as frequent flying for business is no longer for the privileged few.

The world has become a very small place. Hopping a 22-hour flight to Hong Kong is as routine for today’s business traveler as it would have been for my parents (both “Super Elite” in their day) to grab the Rapidair from Montreal to Toronto’s Pearson several times a week. It is also known that most business travellers don’t in fact pay for their own airline tickets; they go where they are needed and climb the status rungs, absorbing the benefits of frequent flying on the company credit card. And travel rewards programs have capitalized mightily on the dog-eat-dog concept of status structures as a marketing device.

The ‘everyone’s a player,’ small-world reality of frequent-flyer bloating has been addressed by making the thresholds one needs to cross to receive tangible rewards largely unattainable; not only must one fly more frequently, one must spend more on travel to achieve whatever adjective for elite tiered status happens to be en vogue.

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Bronze is gone. Delta Airways splits their SkyMiles into four categories starting with Silver. Image via MQM = Medallion Qualifications Miles, Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) = Annual spending on Delta flights.

On Delta for example, to go from Silver (lowest) to Gold (second lowest) membership, a flyer must accrue an additional 25,000 “qualifying miles.” Based on the complex system that determines frequent-flyer status, only miles from certain flights and certain routes will be counted towards this threshold, but with the upgrade and extra flying comes priority airport services, fee waivers, and lounge access. Wonderful. To jump from Platinum to Diamond (the highest level), however, the spend difference is 50,000 of the right sort of miles. And the benefits? Almost identical.

It’s time to cut the class. Companies are aware that the era of White Star Line travel is over – airline travel is horribly unglamorous. The introduction of graduated “premium” travel has aided in redistributing the hoards, but has simultaneously become very confusing, in that it has attempted to resolve the classist reality of air travel by introducing more classes.

What exactly is the difference between “Plus” and “Premium”? Is “Executive” the same as “Business”? The higher airlines raise the exclusivity stakes, and nuance what it means to fly as an X- vs Y-level flyer, the more this redistribution comes to be meaningless. The business traveller next to you in coach may in fact have an elite status; they just don’t get anything for it anymore.

How can we dismantle the classism, and offer something real, without upsetting those who do in fact care what mileage number is printed next to the “Elite” on their luggage tag? Our chart toppers are a constant – as long as they are guaranteed a J cabin (Business Class) seat and the hoopla that goes with it, they’ll most likely travel happily. Rebranding lesser titles by simultaneously stripping mileage of its previous tangible value is the current system, and although it makes perfect marketing sense (engendering a promise that the next tier is in reach), it’s, you know, kind of deceptive.

Barro’s statement (by way of Delta Air Lines), that it is impossible for everyone to be a frequent-flyer, holds true. That doesn’t mean, however, that frequent-flyers fly any less frequently, and telling them otherwise really grinds their gears. Airlines are attempting to navigate the turbulent skies of a saturated frequent-flyer market, a decidedly difficult task. Yet they are doing so by making the majority of their “middle” (previously elite!) members feel unappreciated.

We live in a world of one-to-one marketing. The ultimate goal is to be able to throw away our second wallet, or at least blow the dust off the top of it slightly less often. Individuals never enjoy being told that they are special, only to then be shown that they are not. If we are to maintain a system of graduated flyer statuses, there must be a certain level of consistency, and accountability. Airlines must get creative, award tangible benefits, and attempt to make status-conscious flyers (and the companies who pay their airfare!) feel appreciated in other ways when they pull the red boarding carpet from underneath their feet.

Header illustration by Godwin Dakey.