a person holding a bottle of wine

Let’s start with the definitive question of the new era for airlines. If all prices are equal, how do you win a customer?

Technology is certainly a part of it and the on board experience unquestionably is too. But let’s be real — it’s usually chicken or fish whatever airline you fly and every airline can buy the same technology.

So how do you separate yourself beyond shared catering or identical seats with unique color schemes? Perks and loyalty is the latest answer. The way things are going, you no longer need to be a frequent flyer to have tangible benefits, just one who is loyal.

a group of people walking in a terminal

Airlines Move To Milestone Perks

JetBlue and American have started the year off by doing something few other airlines have, but many more airlines will in the future.

Both airlines now offer customers perks before they hit any official “tier” or “level” in their loyalty program. These are perks for crossing achievable milestones which many people should be able to accomplish with as little as a couple annual trips.

Hotels were already on this trend, but more on the in between elite statuses, and not so much the “before status” ground. The exception would be free wifi for anyone who enrolls in their loyalty program. It’s quite a powerful driver in this age.

The goal? Capture those annual trips. Every one of them.

With basic economy, legacy airlines made a conscious choice to compete with discount “no frills” carriers on price and that was important, even if unpopular. Consumer data suggests at least 90% of passengers make purchases based on price alone.

And yes, many may fail to factor the cost of ancillary purchases like seats or bags with some lead in prices, but that’s another story for another day.

The risk with that price based strategy was that if everything differentiating part of the legacy airline experience was stripped away, price would always be the only deciding factor. Would brand, or perception of a better experience be enough? Not always.

So here we are with customizable perks before status.

Fly or spend with us a couple times and you might earn priority boarding, passes for preferred seats or a beverage on board. Both American and JetBlue are now allowing customers to choose their perks as they earn them.

At just 15,000 loyalty points, which can be earned from spending or flying, an American customer can now pick between having priority benefits for one trip, a higher group boarding for the year or preferred seat coupons. JetBlue’s choices are arguably even richer and more broadly appealing.

For a customer booking on price but with multiple airline options to choose from at the same price, the ability to actually achieve rich rewards should certainly fuel the purchase decision.

Emirates First Class Champagne

If I can fly Frontier and get absolutely nothing for my $50 fare, or fly JetBlue for the same price a few times a year and get some drink tickets or security fast track passes, I’ll absolutely choose the latter.

This makes the concept of customer loyalty extend well and truly down to the base, and to people who aren’t frequent travelers. Loyalty is valued, even if it’s for one or two annual trips, rather than once or twice a week.

It’s a powerful notion and one that will be incredibly fun to watch, as more airlines bundle their lower tier perk options.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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    1. Thanks for the feedback, Courtney. I guess? I don’t understand what’s “uninforming” since thee title is that perks before status are a new trend, more airlines are doing it, and then I list a myriad of the benefits being offered up early on to members. Is that not what you expected to glean from it?

  1. The only pitfalls of some of these perks I see is the diluting of the same perks for elites that fly and/or spend a LOT.

    Drinks coupons, preferred seating ok but the two biggies for me with Oneworld Emerald/Skyteam Elite status is the priority boarding (I NEVER check a bag and love always finding overhead space) and lounge access. Now, when BA call groups 1-3 to board (they tend to just call all three groups together) it is often literally a half of the passengers at the gate in one of these groups.

    1. I personally think that’s safe. These would only give Zone 5 boarding in the case of AA, so Emeralds in Group 2 would be well on board. Curious to see where others go.

  2. I thought the article was quite useful. I have status with American Air and had no idea that they were implementing multiple new benefit levels with perks. That is useful information to me, especially when planning my spending and airline purchases for the upcoming year. Thanks.

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