Maximizing Elite Status: The Lowdown on Soft Landings

Dec 19, 2011

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This is an installment in my Maximizing Elite Status series. Articles include; The Basics and Why People Mileage RunUsing ITA Matrix to Find Cheap FlightsHow Much is Elite Status Worth?, Comparing Top Tier StatusComparing Mid-Tier Status, Comparing Low Level StatusHow to Get Elite Miles Without Flying, Understanding Elite Status Bump ThresholdsThe Lowdown on Soft Landings, How to Cope with Losing Elite Status.

We’re in the final stretch of 2011 now, and you should have a pretty good idea of whether or not you’re going to requalify for elite status on your airline of choice. If you’re set to requalify, congratulations! If you’re not, it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of elite status for you altogether, as I wrote about last March. Additionally, you can buy elite miles on several airlines, so that might be an option – albeit an expensive one – before you decide to drop an elite level or two.

However, several airlines unofficially offer their elite flyers what’s called a “soft landing.” That’s when flyers who have reached top or mid-tier elite status don’t requalify for the following year, but instead of dropping their elite status altogether, the airline simply bumps them down to a lower tier. The longer you’ve been a high-level elite with an airline, the higher your chances of this happening—or at least of arguing that it should happen! Think of it as a courtesy move on the airline’s part to encourage that passenger to keep trying for elite status and flying the airline.

So for instance, if you were an American AAdvantage Executive Platinum member but only qualified for Gold or not at all this year, you’d just be bumped down to Platinum rather than down to Gold or dropped completely. This doesn’t work if, say, you were a Platinum member who only made it to Gold this year and wanted to reattain Platinum status. You’d be stuck with Gold unless American offers to let flyers buy back their elite status level if they’re close (see the note at the bottom).

While this sort of thing isn’t talked about much in the airline world—after all, elite desks don’t want to get swamped with calls from non-qualifiers begging and pleading for a status bump—there is a lot of anecdotal evidence about what actually goes down.

American Airlines actually has one of the most talked-about if still “undocumented” soft landing programs, though no one knows for sure how the recent bankruptcy will affect this benefit. My gut is that they are trying to keep as many jittery flyers loyal as possible so it will be every generous this year – even though they are running an extremely generous double EQM promo.

Delta has no system for doling out the soft landings, but there have been individual stories in the past two years about people dropping from Platinum to Gold Medallion when they didn’t requalify for status. Nothing too firm, but the stories are out there. Delta allows rollover and a zillion ways to get Medallion Qualifying Miles without flying (like getting 10,000 MQMs with the first purchase of the Reserve Card).

United, on the other hand, is thought to never give out soft landings, and is actually notorious on the FlyerTalk boards for being stingy in this regard.

US Airways has been very tough on giving out soft landings, though there have been a few cases where people with Gold status who have little or no qualifying travel the following year are still renewed at Silver. It seems like with this program the most you can hope for is Silver.

There’s no data yet on British Airways’ new Avios program’s soft landing policy, but in the past, BA Gold Executive Club members who failed to requalify were bumped down just one level to Silver.

There’s also indications that elite flyers with Emirates’ Skywards program will simply drop a level down when they fail to requalify, and the same seems to be true of EVA Air’s Evergreen Club.

On the hotel side of things, both Hilton and Hyatt elite members have reported soft landings when—a 2010 Hyatt Diamond just dropped down to Platinum when failing to requalify at all for 2011, and a Hilton Diamond dropped down to Gold instead of being dropped altogether after barely any stays the following year.

The Buy Back

Just as a side note, some programs like Marriott Rewards and American AAdvantage will actually let you renew your same status level by buying it back. It ain’t cheap, but the perks could be worth it if you have a lot of travel coming up.

What have your experiences with soft landings been?

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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