[FoRK] UA Global Services outed [NYT]

Rohit Khare khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Mon May 16 19:07:05 PDT 2005

I hear from a past member that indeed there can be a few glitches  
when being downgraded -- but the privileges are quite real... Oh  
well, someday I'll have to look into it firsthand :)


A Flier Status Elite Enough to Eclipse Mere Platinum
The New York Times May 10, 2005

On a recent flight from Denver to Las Vegas, Michael Silber was  
assigned a dreaded middle seat in the back of the plane. But when Mr.  
Silber, an executive with the Harman Consumer Group, an electronics  
company in Woodbury, N.Y., checked in at the ticket counter, a United  
Airlines employee not only upgraded him on the spot but apologized  
for the lapse.

"You should have never gotten that seat in the first place," the  
agent whispered to him to avoid being overheard by other passengers.  
"You're Global Services." His membership, she added, "means we like  
you a lot."

That may be something of an understatement. As the airline industry  
struggles to recover from losses totaling $32.3 billion during the  
last four years, it is pursuing its biggest spenders with a rare  

Global Services, which was quietly introduced in 2003, is perhaps the  
largest of the new super-elite frequent-flier programs that airlines  
reserve for the crème de la crème of their clientele. And regrets for  
uncomfortable middle seats are the least of the benefits.

On United and on other airlines, members of the secretive, invitation- 
only clubs are met at the airport by employees and whisked past the  
check-in line. They wait for their flights in unmarked V.I.P. lounges  
and are offered liberal upgrades and personalized attention by  
airline employees. And at a time when airlines are obsessed with  
improving their on-time records, it is not uncommon for a plane to be  
held for a super-elite member who is stuck in traffic.

"Super-elites are the Skull and Bones of the sky," said the frequent- 
flier expert Joel Widzer, referring to the blue-blood secret society  
at Yale. "Don't bother asking how to join. If you qualify, they'll  
let you know."

Becoming a member of this beyond-platinum club is "the most coveted  
award" for the frequent traveler, according to Hal Brierley, a  
loyalty-program consultant with Brierley & Partners in Dallas. He  
estimates that fewer than one-tenth of 1 percent of elite-level  
fliers hold super-elite status. But because the clubs are shrouded in  
such mystery (none of the airlines contacted for this article would  
comment on them), the actual figures remain a puzzle. "Sometimes,  
even program members don't know they're in it," Mr. Brierley said.

American Airlines, the largest domestic carrier, claims it does not  
have a beyond-platinum designation. But according to consultants and  
loyalty-program experts, it informally tags selected elite-level  
passengers for special treatment. Continental Airlines offers  
Chairman's Circle status to a group of just 21 executives from  
companies whose business is considered important to the airline.

Delta Air Lines, which phased out a super-elite program called the  
Flying Colonel during the late 1990's, may be about to commission a  
replacement. Just last month, it mailed letters to some of its top- 
level frequent fliers promising to offer "unpublished incentives to  
select Platinum Medallion members." (Platinum Medallion is its  
highest published elite frequent-flier level.)

But the most formal, if not the best-known, of the super-elite  
programs belongs to United Airlines. About 18,000 Global Services  
members are on the books out of 10 million active Mileage Plus  
program members and 42 million registered frequent fliers. Of the  
18,000, roughly 10,000 made the grade because they had spent at least  
$20,000 a year on United, while about 8,000 got on the list in hopes  
the star treatment would entice them and their companies to do more  
business with the airline.

When they make the cut, Global Services members are issued a black  
Global Services card, a leather-bound welcome kit and phone numbers  
of agents trained to see after their needs. Then the fun begins. The  
chosen ones are escorted through the security line and ushered into  
secret waiting lounges so concealed from the public that United  
executives themselves have trouble finding them. They receive  
confirmed upgrades at the time of booking (rather than having to wait  
until 100 hours before the flight, a burden that highest published  
elite-level travelers, those at the 1K level, must bear). Should they  
leave a jacket or cellphone behind, they can ask the airline to have  
the item delivered to their home by an airline employee.

United isn't the first company to issue a black card. American  
Express introduced its Centurion card, which came to be known as the  
black card, in 1999. Among the benefits are a concierge service, a  
personal travel counselor, automatic elite-level memberships in  
airline, car rental and hotel loyalty programs, and access to  
invitation-only events like special concerts. And, like the super- 
elite status conferred by the airlines, the American Express Card is  
granted to those deemed deserving - never in response to a customer's  

Beyond all the perks, the real bonus is "the 'Wow!' factor,"  
according to Mr. Brierley, the loyalty expert. "It's those times when  
you land in a snowstorm in Denver, and your connecting flight is  
canceled," he said. "There are long lines at the airport, and you'll  
probably be stuck overnight. But when your plane arrives, there's an  
airline employee holding a boarding pass for the next flight out -  
and you have a seat in first class."

Some frequent travelers are skeptical about the new elite levels.  
Vincent Petty, a law student at Stetson University in St. Petersburg,  
Fla., and a Platinum Medallion-level member of Delta's SkyMiles  
frequent-flier program, recently received a letter from the airline  
promising new benefits that exceeded his elite level. "But things  
haven't gotten any better," he said. "If anything, they are worse. I  
wait for an upgrade, and even though I'm the only Platinum-level  
passenger, the first-class seats go to the Silver Medallions who  
maybe paid more for their tickets than I did. I don't see how a new  
program is going to change that."

Airlines have always gone out of the way for certain passengers,  
including celebrities and dignitaries. But the emergence of more  
codified super-elite programs that are tied not only to social  
status, but also to the amount of business a passenger gives an  
airline, has left frequent-flier experts wondering if this represents  
the beginning of a formal fourth level of frequent-flier program.

"In a psychological sense, there is a mechanism whereby one is always  
looking to the next level," said Tim Winship, who edits the Web site  
Frequentflier.com. "But in a practical sense, these super-elite  
programs are not as much about rewards as they are about ego  

Strictly speaking, none of the new super-elite clubs are traditional  
rewards programs because they emphasize special services over  
tangible benefits like first-class upgrades or award tickets. But at  
least one program, Global Services, last year considered making its  
program public and formally incorporating it into its Mileage Plus  
program. Some United Airlines employees and consultants say the  
airline may make Global Services official in 2006.

But that could create more problems than it solves. Mr. Winship notes  
that the moment a super-elite program goes public, passengers will  
begin looking for something better. (That is what happened in 1993,  
when the 1K designation, once a secret program for top-tier fliers,  
was declassified.)

United's current super-elite program, which now adds about 1,000  
members a year, would then grow at an even quicker pace, and could  
lose some of its distinctiveness, perhaps forcing the airline to  
create a new elite level. Indeed, the people involved in awarding  
club memberships find that the most difficult part is not determining  
who is in, but deciding who is out. "How do you tell someone you're  
not in the club anymore?" Mr. Brierley asked.

In the case of Mr. Silber, the electronics company executive, you do  
not bother. Just before taking a recent trip to China, he phoned  
United to ask for an upgrade. While he was talking with a  
representative, he inquired about his Global Services status. "I was  
told that I'm not a Global Services member any longer," he said. "The  
representative I spoke with suggested that I write the airline to  
find out what was up. So now I have a black card, and all my  
reservations show that I'm a member of Global Services, but I'm not.  
It's kind of weird."

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