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Airlines operate secretive VIP programs for frequent flyers

Airlines are still tight-lipped about their secret VIP programs, but more and more they are opening up to executives who can steer business their way.

By Marisa Barbosa

STORY TOOLS

You would think that a successful Hollywood movie dedicated to revealing the special perks lavished on the most frequent of flyers would prompt airlines to drop the cloak and dagger act and come clean about their executive travel programs. But almost a year after George Clooney played Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air, regular flyers still know little about these sumptuous VIP programs.

In Up in the Air, Clooney is a member of the elusive American Airlines Concierge Key Club. The movie suggests the card provides an array of benefits, not least of which is helping Clooney seal the seduction of a fellow avid business traveler who stares in awe at the black plastic card. The scene is a better advertisement for American Airlines than it is a reflection of real life, however.

While it is true that many of the top airlines have premier frequent flyer programs that offer such tantalizing benefits as express check-ins, escorts in modified golf carts to make close connections, no fees for baggage or changing itineraries, and special telephone lines for reservations, it is also true that secret club members also suffer from mundane travel hiccups like delayed flights and lost baggage. Of course, there is the rare occasion when a private plane is dispatched to pick up a stranded program member, who may happen to be a CEO, senator or former president.

When we contacted American about their Concierge Key program they barely acknowledged its existence. “We are sorry,” said a spokesperson, “but we do not discuss this VIP program in any detail.” The official line was that it was an invitation-only program that provides “special services” to a “limited number” of their best customers.

Delta Airlines used to have a similar frequent flyer program called Executive Partner that was recently rolled into a new plan named Diamond Medallion. While the name sounds like an upgrade, Delta actually eliminated invitation-only status and opened up the “elite benefits and privileges” to any member who reaches 125,000 miles.

Ironically, the covert miles program most discussed on the Internet is also the most Freemason-like in its official communications. United Airlines’ media relations department refused to comment on its VIP program, Global Services, even though a quick Google search reveals many of the membership’s secrets.

The reason little is known about how these programs work is because the airlines don’t want regular users to know. The dark veil of secrecy adds to the mystique, and those who are invited to join reinforce the stereotype by keeping low-key and tight-lipped.

John Reistrup ran the dividend miles program at U.S. Airways for seven years. He says airlines guard the inner workings of their programs and membership as state secrets to prevent other airlines from poaching their best customers and to avoid other customers from getting jealous. “The miles program is very sensitive for the airlines,” he explains. These VIP programs were much more exclusive to celebrities and members of Congress until three years ago, when the airlines started seeing the value in other customers, Reistrup notes. “The criteria to choose these customers doesn’t depend only on revenue, but in the frequency and miles flown, which is not the same as profitability.”

Since it costs an airline the same amount of money to take each person aboard a plane from one place to another, the real value lies in whether the traveler makes a last-minute purchase, or pays for a fully refundable first class ticket. Both of these increase the price by hundreds if not thousands of dollars. These high-value travelers are also in position to steer more business toward an airline.

One of the new Concierge Key card- holders, who asked to be identified only as an insurance company executive, received his invitation after eight years of loyal travel on American Airlines. “They never tell you why they are inviting you,” he tells PODER. “But to give you an idea, I had five million miles by the time I received the invitation.” It came with an elegant letter and the emblematic black card.

The executive says the services include quicker check-ins, shorter security lines and direct phone lines to book reservations. On one occasion, he was in Costa Rica when he received a 9 a.m. phone call that his 2 p.m. flight was going to be late. American booked him on four different flights to prevent him from being stranded. The effort not only secured him a seat on a plane but also perplexed U.S. immigration officials.

Another Concierge Key member was invited to join because of his close ties to the White House. Previously an executive platinum member, he says that besides the transfer escorts, which he refuses, the difference between the two programs is minimal. And there are the occasional headaches all flyers face. “Bags get lost no matter who you are,” he says. “But they are immediately willing to reimburse me for anything that I would need while I am traveling.”

Members of United Airlines’ Global Services program are treated to similar perks, and in online message boards have similar comments about service. Thomas Stucker, a car sales consultant, is the airline’s top flyer with more than 8.8 million miles. He’s flown so much that his traveling experiences range from eating 23 consecutive meals on a plane to sharing a Global Services golf cart with then Sen. Barack Obama.

“Global services is like dying and going to heaven,” Stucker tells Time magazine. He especially likes getting a $500 bottle of wine for his birthday and is particularly fond of the phone operators who recognize the sound of his voice. “When I call the 800 number in Michigan, most of the time I don’t even have to introduce myself, they know me,” he says. “I got my own 1- 800 KISS MY ASS hotline.”

The elite service varies from country to country and from airport to airport. According to the insurance executive, Miami’s Concierge Key staff throw in a limousine, while in Argentina the service is dreadful.

The recession has also added a new wrinkle for airlines and passengers. As airlines change routes to increase revenues, it has become increasingly tricky for some passengers to y with just one company. For avid international travelers it’s even harder.

“It has become much more difficult to stay loyal to one airline,” says Dr. Judy Kuriansky, a radio host and professor at Columbia University Teachers College. She is a member of United’s 1-K program for customers who fly more than 100,000 miles a year, a step below Global Services. “It makes me angry because sometimes I have no choice and have to travel with a different company. Then I see my status changing and I get fewer perks. It’s a lot of pressure since these are all year-to-year benefits.”

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