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Do you know who I am without my status?

In 2023, Status Match reported that around 1 million travelers lost their status. This accounts for 41% of the overall population enrolled in frequent flier programs.

5 min read


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When the flight attendant spilled a cup of pre-departure water all over me in early February, I worried it was an omen of things to come in my newly downgraded frequent flier status. Would this have happened to me a week earlier when I still had my previous status on United?

According to Status Match, approximately 1 million travelers lost their status in 2023. That’s among 41% of the total general population who are part of frequent flier programs, 24% of whom are part of airline programs. Of those, a small percent qualify for the elite top tier special programs like Delta 360 or United’s Global Services.

Now that airlines are enjoying high demand and record profits, it’s back to business as usual. Extensions to status offered during the pandemic and its aftermath have given way to a return to old practices. And that means loyal passengers are getting the chop.

The trappings of success that comes with loyalty status becomes part of your identity. In certain circles, sharing your status reveals who’s “at the top of the pecking order” enjoying privileges not afforded to everyone else. In other words, it makes you feel important. The littlest perk triggers a release of dopamine. The brain likes that and so we stay loyal in search of more hits of dopamine. It is a vicious cycle that can create a type of madness.  Until it all goes away.

The fall from grace is a hushed affair. A discrete email arrives late afternoon with the news, including platitudes of how much your business has been appreciated. My email from United concluded with “best wishes in your future travels.” It read as though I was no longer in the club nor welcome by the airline at all. It was like that cup of cold pre-departure water dropped on my lap. Jarring, not wanted and hopefully, accidental rather than indicative of what’s to come.

In 30+ years of loyal flying with United, I’ve held every status available.  As Isaac Newton said “what goes up must come down” and the same is true with my Mileage Plus status. Each time I’ve dropped down, I’ve gone through an identity crisis. Who am I if I’m not at the top?  What happens when privilege gets taken away?

Spouses also benefit from this trapping of success, and they lose their access along with the traveler.  Other status-reduced travelers have told me the change is more painful for the spouse as it was a form of compensation for the cost of having the traveler away from home so many nights.

Just like when someone breaks up with you, all the emotions of grief are experienced, including anger. Having my identity altered simply because I didn’t spend enough while still spending a lot, made me ready to walk and take my business elsewhere. Especially when the message is so unceremonious. What’s the value of 30+ years of loyalty?

Herein lies the opportunity, and it’s applicable to any business where you engage with your most loyal customers.

Soft landings are better than hard

My guidance to airlines (and any business) looking to maintain loyalty, instead of dumping your former high value customers like baggage onto a conveyor belt, try a softer landing. Use language that shows gratitude toward these alumni and appreciation and anticipation for the flying the passenger is still going to do. Think long-term lifetime value instead of short-term annual revenue. What if there was an invite only alumni group for former high revenue passengers who may still have affinity for your brand?

It’s business so make it personal

United’s break-up email to me was signed “Your Mileage Plus Team” while the welcome to the program email is routinely signed by the CEO or individual running the operation. This contributed to it feeling so impersonal and detached.  Is it that hard to put a human’s name on an email?  And most importantly, reassure the customer that they are still welcome and you value their business no matter the amount they spent this past year.  There are many more years ahead and you want to hold onto that business.

Hold those customers close

The bond of loyalty frays during this moment of status transition. First quarter of the calendar year is an opportunity for a rival to attempt to win those disenfranchised passengers over. How do you appeal to your competitors’ loyal customers?  How do you hold these still spending passengers close, so they don’t fly away?  Make the message personal, make it attractive and you’ll drive trial or retention.

Loyalties fade just as spilled water dries. The travel industry is enjoying another record year but a look over time shows that it’s a volatile industry so it’s bound to have a downturn.  Now is the time to cement loyalty for the duration so you minimize future turbulence.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.

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