Flying High

Now more than ever, top customers of airlines find that loyalty pays. We take a look at the best - and worst - of frequent-flier programs.

By Lia Steakley, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Dan Rotem made a surprising discovery last year: Not all airline frequent-flier programs are created equal - especially when it comes to the red-carpet treatment. Rotem, the CEO of Florida website developer KingWebmaster and an 85,000-mile-a-year flier, did some comparison shopping after his longtime favorite carrier, Delta, filed for bankruptcy, making him worry about service cutbacks.

He found that all airlines promise their elite customers basic perks like faster check-in and early boarding. But when it comes to the privileges that matter most - like free upgrades on long-haul flights - there were key differences. "Believe it or not," says Rotem, now a Continental OnePass member, "not all flier programs are the same." Here's the good, bad, and ugly of elite membership at the top carriers.

American AAdvantage

American is the most generous about granting elite status to travelers who lack the requisite miles. Periodic promotions boost customers who agree to fly an extra 5,000 or 10,000 miles in 90 days, even on discounted fares.

Key markets: Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Juan

Elite miles: Gold (25,000), Platinum (50,000), Executive Platinum (100,000)

Pros: Members can lock in upgrades to business class on domestic flights early with $30 coupons worth 500 miles apiece. Admirals Club members have free access to Regus Group's fully equipped business lounges in 180 U.S. cities.

Cons: Unused miles expire after three years, and only Executive Platinum members can expect automatic upgrades. Members say in-flight service has declined and the new business-class seats don't compare to those on rival carriers.

Continental OnePass

Continental wins frequent-flier polls for its overall benefits, but the best-kept secret may just be its airport Presidents Clubs ($325 to $400 a year). On top of free bites, booze, and broadband, some clubs have private bathrooms with showers and ironing services.

Key markets: Cleveland, Houston, Newark

Elite miles: Silver (25,000), Gold (50,000), Platinum (75,000)

Pros: Elites get priority baggage handling and automatic upgrades (on partner Northwest too) when front-cabin seats are available. Those about to reach a new level can get early advancement upon request.

Cons: Members complain it's difficult to redeem award tickets, and promotions meant to accelerate elite status apply only to full-fare tickets. Continental has the fewest special airport security lanes among the major carriers.

Delta SkyMiles

Not happy with your current airline? To steal customers, Delta plays hardball by trumpeting periodic "status matching" offers that let newcomers from rival carriers bring their status with them.

Key markets: Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, New York, Salt Lake City

Elite miles: Silver (25,000), Gold (50,000), Platinum (75,000)

Pros: Delta promises to upgrade elites whenever seats are open, and makes it easier to redeem award tickets. Members with American Express Platinum cards get free access to airport clubs run by Delta and partner airlines.

Cons: Miles expire after two years, and free upgrades aren't valid on Delta's partner airlines. Platinum members lose their free access to airport clubs in 2007.

Northwest WorldPerks

Road warriors who log less than 50,000 miles a year swear Northwest is tops. Silver members report getting upgraded on half their trips, more than double the reported rate at competing airlines.

Key markets: Detroit, Indianapolis, Memphis, Minneapolis

Elite miles: Silver (25,000), Gold (50,000), Platinum (75,000)

Pros: As on partner Continental, elite fliers get automatic upgrades when premium seats are empty. Membership to Northwest's WorldClub airport lounges (where cocktails and Wi-Fi are free) is cheaper than at other U.S. carriers, and includes access to club lounges operated by all partner airlines.

Cons: No members get priority baggage handling, and only Golds and Platinums get standby services. Northwest's labor strife has hurt customer service, and the airline's fleet is the industry's oldest.

United Mileage Plus

United is the only airline that lets fliers, with a prepaid card starting at $5,000, buy into elite status without flying a single mile. Elites at risk of losing their status can enroll in a $499 program that doubles subsequent miles earned.

Key markets: Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington

Elite miles: Premier (25,000), Premier Executive (50,000), 1K (100,000)

Pros: United sells 500-mile upgrade coupons in $200 four-packs. Elite members stuck in coach on full flights get priority seating in the front rows, where 5 extra inches of precious legroom await.

Cons: Even top-tier customers aren't promised upgrades when seats are available; they must trade in coupons to move up a class. United has scant special airport security lanes.

Lia Steakley is a writer in Seattle.

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