What it's Like Inside Airlines’ Secret Frequent-Flyer Clubs

By Brian Kelly |

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This piece originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.

Thought you were elite? Think again.

Many of us toil to achieve gold, platinum, or super-uber-titanium-plus elite status with an airline. But we’re still not the crème-de-la-crème of flyers—the airlines secretly invite a select group of travelers into elite programs that impart benefits the flying public can only dream about.


These VIPs get access to the fanciest lounges even if they’re flying in coach, personal escorts to help them make tight connections, and special gifts like Tiffany Champagne flutes. If their flight gets canceled, they don’t have to wait in line to be put on the standby list—they’re automatically given that one coveted empty seat on the next flight, with priority over the normal top-tier frequent flyers.

Why do airlines even have these secret elite programs? It’s all about the money: they reward the most profitable customers, not just the ones that fly the most. While the invitation criteria for these programs isn’t made public, based on interviews with a number of members and information available online, I’ve deduced that you generally need to be in the top 1 to 5% of spenders on the airline in order to even be considered for an invitation. That means you’re spending upwards of $35,000 a year—even better if it’s on business and first-class fares. (Some airlines may make exceptions for celebrities or CEOs, too.)  Why not publish the criteria to join these programs? The extra layer of exclusivity only makes these programs more desirable- just like it does in the credit card world for the American Express Centurion Card. When you’re invited, it feels much more special, which is the entire point of these programs.  


The three major U.S. legacy carriers each have these secret programs. United’s is called Global Services, American Airlines has Concierge Key, and the newest program is Delta 360. Here’s how they break down.  

United Global Services offers the most tangible, valuable benefits. Global Services members automatically get top-tier 1K elite status, which comes with complimentary domestic upgrades and six global upgrade certificates, which can be used to upgrade one class of service for free. They also get increased award availability if there is T or R fare class availability (which are normally paid fare classes). Global Services members have better upgrade odds as well since they have their own fare bucket (PN class) which offers much more availability than to other elites and those trying to upgrade with miles. United lets Global Services passengers board the plane first, regardless of the class they are flying. When traveling on an international business class ticket, they can use the Global First lounge, normally reserved for first class passengers. Additionally, customer service agents may assist members in making tight connections, even offering Mercedes-Benz tarmac transfers in airports like Houston and Los Angeles.

American Airlines Concierge Key comes in second when it comes to perks. The biggest benefit to Concierge Key is automatic Executive Platinum status, which means there is no fee for using miles to upgrade international tickets. Each year, Key members also get an additional two valuable system-wide upgrade certificates, which can be used on almost any paid fare to move up to the next class of service, and full Admirals Club access use the lounge. They get called personally to board the aircraft first, and and agents will escort them when needed—especially when making tight connections.  (P.S.: While you can’t buy Concierge Key membership outright, American does sell Five Star Service, which gives you many of the same perks, for $250 per person per trip.)

Delta 360 is only three years old and the perks are less defined, but can still be valuable. While the airline is mum on membership requirements, Delta generally invites Diamond Medallion high-spenders, with a focus on those living outside key hubs like Atlanta. The thinking is that flyers who don’t live near Delta hubs have more options when selecting an airline, and don’t have to connect as often. If Delta can make it seamless to connect through their hubs with Porsche tarmac transfers and better upgrades, they can win those high-value customers.

Delta 360 doesn’t provide lounge access, since Diamond Medallions already get SkyClub access, but they do give enhanced customer service and occasional gifts. Several Delta 360 members I’ve spoken with have received Tiffany Champagne flutes this year—plus a bottle of fine bubbly to fill them with.

But these programs aren’t really about presents—what’s most valuable is the improved flying experience, which can save you time and get you home quicker. That’s priceless. And it would be nice if airlines tried to do the same for the other 97% of flyers.

In Travel + Leisure's On Points, Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy, shares his strategies for getting the most out of your points and miles.


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