The Travel Adviser: Fight or flight

Let’s look deeper into the two most common frequent flyer programs for trans-Atlantic travelers between the United States and Israel: El Al and United Airlines.

Airplane takeoff (photo credit: REUTERS)
Airplane takeoff
(photo credit: REUTERS)
People react differently when threatened. Psychologists discuss the concept of the “fight or flight” response in great detail.
In simplest terms it’s the physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event or attack. The theory postulates that animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, priming the animal for fighting or fleeing. The adrenal gland is activated almost simultaneously and releases chemical messengers. This results in the production of hormones that increase the blood pressure, blood sugar and suppresses the immune system. The initial response and subsequent reactions are triggered in an effort to create a boost of energy.
Leaving aside the physical threat to one’s own survival, I encounter it often when clients are threatened with the loss of their premier frequent flyer status.
First and foremost, do you even need to choose a frequent flyer program? Over the past few years, we’ve seen a major consolidation in the airline industry. Sayonara to US Air and Continental. There are now only a handful of major airlines and of course you can easily join all of their loyalty programs.
If you lack a clear vision with your frequent flyer strategy, it can be really difficult to accumulate enough miles to redeem for anything.
I recommend focusing on a program that aligns with your travel goals, so you’re more likely to reap valuable awards. Don’t be fooled into believing there’s one best program; suffice it to say there may be one that is best for you. Take into account your travel habits, what types of fares you purchase and what trips you want to take. Review each program’s strengths and weaknesses.
Historically, airlines granted miles based on the distance of the flight.
Tel Aviv to JFK is 5,666 miles, so that’s what you’d get (plus a bonus if you bought a premium fare or had elite status). However, Delta and United switched to a revenue-based model last year, and now base the amount of miles you earn on how much you spend on your ticket, regardless of the length of the trip. Elite frequent flyers still earn their bonus. American Airlines will be switching to this model in the third quarter of 2016. For those three airline customers, purchasing cheap tickets will put you at a disadvantage. El Al’s program eschews miles and doles out frequent flyer points based both on the distance of the flight and the price of the ticket.
Most carriers are part of one of the three major airline networks: One World, Sky Team and Star Alliance. Not all alliances are created equal; each one has its strengths and coverage gaps. Some programs are disparaging when it comes to bogus fees and “fuel surcharges.” American Airline’s main partners for European travel, British Airways and Iberia, levy huge fees, which often negate the value of award tickets. Using miles earned on United Airlines to fly on one their partners is no less abrasive.
For instance, the fuel surcharge on a mileage ticket from London to Toronto in business class on Air Canada can be upwards of $800.
In the spirit of Donald Trump being accused of being too neutral in the Israeli-Arab quagmire, there are two major airlines who eschew membership in any of the three airline alliances: El Al and Etihad. Yes, on some of their code shared partners you may earn miles in one of the three global alliances, but to a large extent they are not members of the all encompassing Global Airline Alliances.
How to compare frequent flyer programs The different features of frequent flyer programs can make them difficult to compare, but if you think about what you want you can see what’s important to you when it comes to earning rewards.
Points earned per $1 spent Finding a frequent flyer program that will maximize your rewards points by providing points for your type of spending and a higher earn rate will mean that you can redeem the rewards you want sooner. Earn rates can vary depending on whether you are using an airlines-approved credit card, be it MasterCard or Visa or American Express or El Al’s Fly Card, so be sure to check which card is required in order to earn the higher rewards points.
Types of rewards available Even though frequent flyer programs provide the same types of rewards and benefits, including travel, retail purchasing and lifestyle rewards, the companies and brands who they partner with can widely vary. Taking the time out to compare your options and go through the program information below will allow you to find out how to get the most bang for your buck and get the rewards you want. Make sure you investigate using your miles for hotel accommodations or car rentals.
Point expiry When people sign up for frequent flyer programs they usually like to save up for larger benefits that require more points, such as flights or an extra suitcase or an upgrade to a better seat. The trouble is that most programs have an expiry date on points, which can limit your earning potential. If you know it will take you a while to earn enough points to get the rewards you want, then you should opt for a program with no point expiry, or one that allows you to extend your points.
Membership levels or tiers Frequent flyer programs usually have different membership levels or tiers that depend on how many points you have and how often you fly. As you move up the tier levels, your ability to earn points increases and your benefit level may also increase. You can judge a frequent flyer program on how easy it is to move up the tiers and what you need to do to maintain your membership level. Also take into account what each tier grants you in comparison to other programs.
THESE QUIRKS and foibles pale in comparison, though, when it comes to achieving, maintaining or switching top-level frequent flyer programs.
Let’s look deeper into the two most common frequent flyer programs for trans-Atlantic travelers between the United States and Israel: El Al and United Airlines.
El Al has at the apex their Top Platinum Level, while United has its Global Services tier, a level so elevated that entry to this exclusive club is by invitation only.
Even El Al’s Platinum level has enough goodies to make the average flyer salivate. Keep in mind, though, that to even reach the Platinum level, the very frequent flyer must accumulate 3,000 points or 40 flight segments in 12 consecutive months. Reaching that plateau ensures extra checked bags, wait list priority, easy ability to upgrade to business class if holding an economy ticket, or first class if holding a business class ticket. Like Gold level members of El Al’s club, it allows entry to El Al’s King David Lounge at several airports around the world. Platinum members enjoy concierge services worldwide through a service center that is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Maintaining that level is something that causes the most loyal customer to question El Al’s very existence.
When Joe was told that El Al was lowering his Platinum status he fired off this missive: “It is my understanding that El Al is removing my Platinum status. My assistant received a phone call from El Al. The insult is that this is happening after more than 30 years of faithful customer status where I have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars with El Al. And now they downgrade my status. If that is the case, and they remove my platinum status, then from now on my entire company and its 100 subsidiaries will no longer fly El Al at all. We represent more than 3,000 employees who fly regularly abroad. We will be finished with them forever. Period. I am very, very angry and will no longer fly El Al.”
El Al’s in a bind. Coupled with horrendous public relations of late with threatened boycotts due to the pilots’ brouhaha with El Al that forced the airline to bring in Spanish and Portuguese aircraft, they are trying to salvage a bad situation. Realizing they stepped on the wrong person’s toes in this case, a senior El Al account manager is feverishly working on a plan to keep his status based on his company’s revenue. Her ability to think outside of the box is something to be applauded – and too often a rarity at El Al.
It was only a few years ago when Ruth decided to make the switch to El Al and fly outdated and inferior planes to Newark for a variety of reasons.
Having been a high-level frequent flyer on United’s predecessor Continental Airlines, she simply asked that El Al match her status. One would have thought she was asking for free tickets in El Al’s swift denial of her request. She was purchasing tickets that already gave her an extra bag, permitted entrance to the business class lounge and would even award her bonus points. It was more a matter of basic respect that led her to her request. El Al’s short-sighted denial left a bitter taste in her mouth and though she easily earned her status by flying them regularly, I am positive that her loyalty to El Al is not very deep.
United Airlines shows no compunction in matching other airlines’ status.
Proof of one’s frequent flyer status with an accompanying 12-month flight status will result in becoming a Premier Gold member in UA ’s frequent flyer program. Economy Plus seats can be reserved free of charge, extra checked bags are permitted and access to the United Airlines Lounge is granted.
Dan dreamed of more. He had long ago become on United a Premier 1K, replete with three free checked bags, complimentary upgrades and a slew of goodies. He then dared to demand to be made a member of Global Services.
Global Services is the elite of the elites, the club so rarefied that even senior United Air management are forbidden to discuss who’s eligible.
Road warriors’ message boards are filled with speculation about why certain travelers receive Global Services. Is it a measure of dollars spent? Segments flown? Behavior? Could United be watching all flyers and deciding, like choosing a recipient for knighthood, who is worthy of such an honor? The benefits of GS start with the straightforward: special entrances at certain airports, bypassing security lines and dedicated phone number to competent, responsive UA agents; first called to board the plane; upgrade priority if a first-class seat is available. Other perks seem to be those reserved for heads of states or CEOs of hi-tech companies, like the luxury car at Newark Airport that will drive you, if your connection is tight, from one plane to the other. Myths abound that United will remove a passenger from an overbooked plane if a GS needs a seat.
My clients who have achieved that lofty GS level will jump through hoops to maintain their status. In fact, a recent article in the New Yorker discusses in length the affliction: Global Services Maintenance Anxiety Disorder. The writer theorizes that GS-MAD afflicts only a small sliver of the frequent flying elite. Perhaps this seems true from his vantage from the small island of Manhattan; I can attest a sizable number of our clientele are infected.
Dan was invited to become a Global Services and has been able to maintain it.
Never underestimate a person’s desire to achieve his or her goals. It doesn’t take much for us to ditch and switch one airline for another.
The author is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments: [email protected]