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The Ultimate Guide to Top Secret Airline Loyalty Programs

If you're reading this, you are probably already a member of one or more airline loyalty programs, collecting miles or points as you fly, and maybe even accumulating elite status that will qualify you for upgrades or complimentary airport lounge access.

But did you know that there's an entirely separate loyalty program that operates behind the scenes at most major carriers? These invitation-only programs don't care about how much you fly - just as long as you are responsible for generating a significant amount of revenue for the carrier. Higher costs and thinner margins are making it increasingly important for airlines to recognize those who make the biggest impact on their bottom line.

This can be anything from one individual spending loads of money on full-fare tickets in premium cabins to an executive's influential role as a corporate client. In return, carriers will pull out all the stops when rewarding that business, sometimes even chartering a plane if it's necessary to get a customer to an important meeting. We're going to pull back the curtain today and provide a peek at how the top 1% of frequent fliers benefit from this extra special attention.

Disclaimer: Nearly all of the details that follow are based on rumor or unsubstantiated commentary. In an effort to maintain the allure of their invitation-only programs, airlines are understandably reluctant to reveal details about what they offer and how customers can qualify.

United Airlines - Global Services

Perhaps the most widely discussed invitation-only program, and at one time the most secretive, Global Services has evolved over the years to more closely mirror traditional elite status. As a result, it provides somewhat less personalized service than other airlines that have a "concierge" mentality. However, the benefits are still lucrative. Global Services members automatically receive Premier 1K status, the highest traditional elite tier in MileagePlus, along with enhancements such as an earlier upgrade priority with more flexible rules. Here's a quick summary of the perks:

  • Automatic Premier 1K status.
  • Earlier upgrade window (120 hours before departure).
  • Better upgrade availability (PN instead of R inventory for two-cabin first class or three-cabin business class; and ON inventory for three-cabin first class).
  • Ability to upgrade award tickets.
  • Assistance making tight connections at select airports (e.g., in a Mercedes-Benz GL at Newark).
  • Access to international arrivals lounge regardless of cabin class.
  • Protection on alternate flights in case of travel delays.

Earning Global Services status reportedly involves spending $50,000 on tickets in first, business, or full-fare economy class. Some say that only full-fare first and business class tickets will merit attention. However, there is one clearly published alternative: long-time customers who travel a cumulative four million miles on United-operated flights will receive lifetime Global Services status for themselves and a companion.

American Airlines -- ConciergeKey

ConciergeKey is all about service and only recently added complimentary Executive Platinum status to its benefits, which are more limited than those of Global Services. Some members report an almost embarrassing amount of attention as they are escorted from the curb, through airport security, and to the gate before they are met by a flight attendant on the jetway.

American Airlines has dedicated Flagship Check-In areas at select airports. (Credit: Amol Koldhekar)

The following is a brief summary of ConciergeKey's benefits:

  • American Airlines has dedicated Flagship Check-In areas at select airports.
  • Automatic Executive Platinum status and Admirals Club membership.
  • Access to first class lounges when traveling on international itineraries (a benefit of Executive Platinum status).
  • Access to Flagship Check-In and Flagship Lounges regardless of fare class.
  • Escorted by an employee throughout the itinerary.
  • Upgrade priority over Executive Platinum members.
  • Two additional eVIP systemwide upgrades.
  • Dedicated ConciergeKey phone number for reservations assistance.
  • Rebooking on multiple alternatives during flight delays.

Relative to most other programs, ConciergeKey also has a reputation for fewer members, who earn their treatment through corporate contracts rather than individual ticket purchases. Those in the latter group may need to spend upwards of $100,000 a year, or perhaps less if they prepay for their travel by purchasing an AAirpass. Still think the bar is set too high? American sells a Five Star Service package to those who need a little extra help, starting at $250 per trip.

Relax in comfortable chairs during check-in rather than waiting in line with everyone else. (Credit: Amol Koldhekar)

Delta Air Lines -- Delta 360

Very little is known about Delta's new invitation-only tier, simply called "Delta 360". A few high-value customers were invited to participate during a trial launch earlier this year, and amenities released so far make it sound like an enhanced concierge service, similar to what American Airlines offers. Reports are that many invited customers spend at least $40,000 each year and easily exceed the requirements for top-tier Diamond Medallion status. Here are some of the benefits that Delta 360 offers:

  • Highest level of service from reservations specialists.
  • Top priority call response from a dedicated Delta 360 desk.
  • Day-of-travel monitoring and proactive rebooking.
  • Assistance making tight connections at select airports (e.g., transportation on the tarmac in a Porsche at Atlanta).

Delta previously had another invitation-only program, which was eventually converted into the formalized Diamond Medallion tier. It's not surprising that they are bringing back the concept since they are also the first traditional US based carrier to include the cost of a person's ticket in the number of award and elite-qualifying miles provided, rather than distance flown.

Some Delta Air Lines customers receive gate-to-gate transfers in this Porsche Panamera in Atlanta. (Credit: Delta Air Lines)

Cathay Pacific Airways - Diamond Plus

Introduced in 2006, Cathay Pacific's Diamond Plus status is offered to the top 1% of Marco Polo Club Diamond members around the world. This new tier was created in order to recognize these premium passengers for their exceptional contributions and travel with Cathay Pacific and Dragonair. While Diamond Plus is treated as nearly identical to Diamond status, Diamond Plus members are eligible for several additional perks above those that are available to Diamond members. These include:

  • Ability to nominate one companion to Marco Polo Club Diamond tier
  • Access to Cathay Pacific Airways First Class lounges around the world regardless of carrier flown.
  • Access to dedicated Diamond Plus service team.

Freshen up at The Arrival Lounge when you arrive in Hong Kong on a Cathay Pacific or Dragonair flight.

Emirates -- Invitation Only

As one of the premier carriers in the world, known for going over the top in its amenities for first and business class customers, one can only imagine what lies in store for la creme de la creme. Fortunately, Emirates also happens to be among the most transparent in its eligibility requirements for Invitation Only (or simply "IO"). Customers report that one must book at least 50 flights in first or business class at full-fare rates to be invited. IO members can take advantage of the following:

  • Membership card personally delivered by a senior Emirates sales manager.
  • Provided matching luggage tags, Mont Blanc wallet, and a Gold elite card for a companion.
  • The IO card lists a private phone number unique to each member and connecting to a personal travel member who greets the customer by name.
  • Guaranteed business class seat on any Emirates flight.
  • Airport pickup and drop-off (though the chauffeur is already a benefit of premium cabin fares).
  • Bookings are flagged as HVC+ (above Gold members, who are merely "High Value Customers").

Sounds luxurious? You bet.

British Airways -- Executive Club Premier

Executive Club Premier status provides many of the same benefits as Executive Club Gold, but there are very few members (about 1,500). Thus, each individual member receives considerable attention. Members report particularly good service recovery in unfortunate situations where expectations aren't met. Benefits include:

  • Access to first class check-in counters (a benefit of Gold status).
  • Access to business class and first class lounges regardless of service class (a benefit of Gold status). Executive Club Premier can also access the Concorde Room at LHR and JFK.
  • Dedicated reservations and members services phone numbers.
  • Access to Special Service teams at most major gateways.
  • Waived fees for select ticket services, including rush processing, re-issue, and Avios redeposit (fare rules still apply).
  • Priority consideration for upgrades when the cabin is oversold.

British Airways may choose to delay a flight by up to 30 minutes to facilitate tight connections.

Better food awaits customers in first class lounges, such as afternoon tea and scones at the American Airlines Flagship Lounge at New York-JFK. (Credit: Amol Koldhekar)

Qantas Airways -- Chairman's Lounge

Qantas' Chairman's Lounge membership is invitation only, and is described as "probably the most exclusive club in the country." Membership in this tier has little to do with frequent flyer miles or status credits, and members typically consist of high level public servants, CEOs, celebrities, and captains of industry. It seems that membership is restricted to a very small group, and one of the more well-known benefits is exclusive access to Chairman's Lounge locations at major Australian airports, where members can take advantage of highly personalized levels of service by the dedicated staff. Some of the benefits of membership include:

  • Access to the exclusive Qantas Chairman's Lounge at major Australian airports.
  • Complimentary upgrades when flying on Qantas.
  • Personalized, exclusive services from Qantas service team.

The locations of these Chairman's Lounges are among the most secretive in the airport lounge industry, and it is unlikely that you'll be able to find the entrance, unless, of course, you happen to be a member.

Scandinavian Airlines -- Pandion

Scandinavian Airlines' ultra-secretive top tier is available to around 1,500 of SAS' most valued customers annually. In order to reach Pandion status, you must be personally invited by the CEO of SAS himself. Typically, members of this exclusive tier fly SAS almost exclusively, and so often that they are on an SAS aircraft more often than the pilots or crew members themselves. In fact, a significant number fly SAS on a daily basis. Some of the benefits of membership include:

  • Guaranteed seating on SAS flights even on completely sold out flights.
  • Personalized, exclusive services from SAS service team.
  • Top tier membership to partner hotel and car rental loyalty programs.

So, there you have it.

Conclusion

Many other programs exist that weren't discussed here, including Air France's Club 2000, Virgin Australia's The Club, Air New Zealand's Elite Priority One, and HON Circle, but a general pattern is apparent. These are programs meant to reward the customer who already has the first class seat, lounge access, and so forth by providing the one thing money can't buy: exclusive, personalized service.

If you think your business and loyalty haven't been acknowledged, be sure to reach out to the airline's member services team. Typically, customer profiles must be manually reviewed, so it is easy to be left off the list if you were overlooked during the first round of screening. If your request is denied, consider shopping around for an elite status match with a competing carrier, who will likely want to see a record of your recent travel purchases.

For the rest of us, remember that the guy up front is probably subsidizing your discounted economy class fare. Lower level elites will just have to be content with a free checked bag and the occasional upgrade!

Invitation-only customers often receive a complimentary membership to airport lounge networks, but regular folks can use them, too! Be sure to use the free LoungeBuddy mobile App mobile app on your next trip to find lounges near you, review their amenities, and confirm the entry requirements. You may already have access due to elite status or a particular travel credit card.

Linkedin Communities

If you are a member of one of these exclusive programs, be sure to request an invitation to one of the exclusive communities on LinkedIn, where you can engage in friendly banter, network with like-minded individuals, and learn more about the experiences of your fellow frequent flyer kinfolk.

United Global Services Community

American Airlines Concierge Key Community

Delta 360 Community

Cathay Pacific Airways Diamond Plus Community

Emirates Invitation Only Community

British Airways Executive Club Premier Community

Qantas Airways Chairman's Lounge Community

Scandinavian Airlines Pandion Community

This is a guest post by Scott Mackenzie who writes the blog Travel Codex.


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