LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 01: American Airlines employees work in a check-in area at Los ... [+] Angeles International Airport (LAX) on October 1, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. United Airlines and American Airlines are set to start furloughing 32,000 employees today after negotiations for a new coronavirus aid package failed in Washington. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)Getty Images
American Airlines became the first major air carrier in the country to launch its 2021 loyalty program this week, amidst a travel year severely disrupted by a worldwide pandemic.
American’s AAdvantage loyalty program for 2021 reintroduces spend and mileage requirements for earning elite status through the year though at tapered rates from before the pandemic. To earn elite status on the carrier in 2021, it’s now required to spend a minimum of $2,000 and fly 20,000 miles to earn low-tier Gold status. Top-tier Executive Platinum status will come with $12,000 in spend and 80,000 flown miles.
These targets and modest reductions from the elite status requirements in place prior to the pandemic. For the 2018 travel year, Gold status, for example, was earned with $3000 in spend and 25,000 in flown miles; Executive Platinum was reached at $15,000 in spend and 100,000 miles.
In addition to the truncated earning requirements, American is also letting frequent flyers start earning elite status early. Any air travel and spend past October 1st of 2020 will count for earning elite status in 2021, though American is careful to point out that bonus points earned from ancillary campaigns or promotions won’t roll over.
American’s conscious decision to establish elite status tiers for the 2021 travel year is perhaps a sign of the industry’s hope for the beginning of a recovery. At the beginning of the pandemic in March, most carriers dramatically reduced flight schedules and put loyalty programs on hold, extending elite status and most program terms for a full year.
Since then, air travel has only recovered at a marginal rate. In mid-October, the TSA is now scanning almost 1M passengers each day, which is still just shy of 40% of 2021 volumes. Business travel, too, has recovered slower than leisure travel based on Adara data.
Much of that sluggishness is related to relative discomfort that many still feel about spending time in public places. Without a vaccine for the pandemic on the horizon, air travel volume projectsion remain soft; in its earnings call last week, United’s CEO Scott Kirby admitted that a full recovery for business travel may not happen until 2024.
Even so, that hasn’t stopped some from returning to the skies fueled by a suite of promotions, flight deals and research — both scientific and industry-led — suggesting the safety of air travel.
On Thursday, a new study published by a joint military taskforce suggested that the probability of getting COVID-19 from a passenger on an airplane was far lower than getting it from an indoor location like a private home. Other MIT data suggest that “for a coach passenger who has a 1% chance of dying if infected with COVID-19, the estimated mortality risk on a full flight is one in 430,000.”
Between that data and whatever confidence passengers may be feeling, there may be enough gas in the tank to get mainstream loyalty programs off the ground in 2021. But as the pandemic continues to ebb and flow around the world, it’s also quite likely that airlines will need to be agile with loyalty as the situation changes and new crises emerge.