The Brancatelli File



September 18, 2003 -- If you're expecting me to rant against Continental Airlines' fundamental restructuring of the Elite levels of its OnePass frequent-flyer program on Tuesday, then you've come to the wrong place.

For one thing, even I can't match the invective and indignation that you have already posted at places like the OnePass message board at For another thing, I warned you six weeks ago to start cashing out because the Big Six would be fiddling with their frequent-flyer rules. Then there's this: At least theoretically, Continental is doing the right thing by aligning its elite-qualification procedure with the amount of dollars that customers spend, not the amount of miles they fly.

But what I do want to rant about today is this: Even when the airlines do the right thing for themselves and the business travelers who are their most profitable customers, the Big Six show how small-minded they are and how stupid they think we are. In fact, the whole shameful affair at Continental this week is a textbook example of how the Big Six are destroying themselves.

In case your attention has been diverted by important stuff--watching the path of Hurricane Isabel, say, or handicapping the baseball playoff race--let me lay out this week's events in all their disgraceful detail.

On Monday, Continental announced what it claimed was a package of special services and benefits for premium flyers. It even rolled out its walking sound bite, chairman and chief executive officer Gordon Bethune, to pontificate on the details, which essentially boil down to a separate boarding aisle at the gate for elite customers and marginal upgrade privileges for travelers foolish enough or unlucky enough to buy full-fare coach tickets.

I say marginal because what Continental will now offer full-fare flyers--who get the unbelievably cheesy title of "Elite for a Day"--isn't even as good as what full-fare flyers once got from Continental. The new program allows full-fare flyers to upgrade to first class--but only after Continental's existing Elite-level travelers get to upgrade in tranches that begin five days before departure.

In years past, of course, Continental offered the "A" fare, a first-class upgrade confirmed at the time you purchased a full-fare ticket. More recently, it sold the "YOnePass" fare, which offered a confirmed first-class seat for just a few dollars more than coach. By contrast, "Elite for a Day" is a hollow farce, a conditional promise that will almost never be honored.

Continental certainly got what it wanted from Monday's big announcement: fawning, uncritical nationwide publicity that made it seem like a Big Six carrier was doing more for the poor saps who paid bust-out retail for a seat in coach. None of the stories mentioned that "Elite for a Day" was a pale imitation of earlier Continental full-fare deals. None mentioned that full-fare flyers will almost never get upgrades. None mentioned that Bethune is a published liar when it comes to OnePass. (Check my column last year for details.) And the ever-credulous airline columnist of The Wall Street Journal even suggested that Continental was offering "a carrot" and "trying to butter up customers."

But the Big Six never offers a carrot unless they are ready to slam a hammer down on our hands. Continental's hammer appeared on Tuesday, without the presence of Bethune, the gullible mainstream media or even the benefit of a public announcement. In a private mailing to OnePass customers, Continental announced it had posted new Elite terms on its Web site. Beginning January 1, it will dramatically hike Elite upgrade fees and, most importantly, will rework the way Elite qualification is determined. While full-fare flyers will receive bonus miles toward future Elite status, flyers traveling on most discounted tickets will receive only a half-mile of credit toward future elite status.

The move essentially makes Continental complicit with Delta, its code-share ally, in denying full elite mileage credit to discount flyers. It is the frequent-flying equivalent of the Dred Scott Decision: Some travelers, Continental and Delta say, are worth less than others.

The outrage aimed at Continental began immediately. Posts at the FlyerTalk board have been vitriolic, nasty, funny, bitter, creative--and their number has been doubling every twelve hours or so since Tuesday afternoon. It is clear that Continental, like Delta before it, will lose Elite customers to the carriers that still offer full credit for every mile.

And that's the absurdity of it all. In theory, Continental is right to reward loyalty based on the money travelers spend with them. Like any business, airlines make money based on the amount of dollars you spend, not the frequency of your visits. Like virtually all other loyalty schemes, frequent-flyer programs should be based on spending, not mileage accumulation. OnePass and all the others should be dollarized. That would mean better treatment for the travelers who spend the most, which is usually us business travelers.

But such clear thinking eludes the airlines. Rather than peg their Elite plans to dollars spent, they make us all feel like Dred Scott. By continuing to tie their programs to miles flown--and then giving us half-miles when we're lucky enough to score a discount--they tell us that we are half-a-customer. They tell us there are times, at least as business travelers, that we are somehow worth less than the other guy.

Business travelers hate being treated like subhumans. They hate it when airlines publicly trumpet a purported program upgrade one day and then stealthily hammer them with repugnant changes the next. They hate it when out-of-touch, overpaid, self-important CEOs like Gordon Bethune lie to them. They hate it when the Big Six think we are too stupid to see what they are doing. And they especially hate it when they see the Big Six making dumb decisions day after day, quarter after quarter, year after year, then blaming their financial losses on us.

Or, as one poster on the board concluded, "It's off to JetBlue. Comfy seats, personal TV, and all of this stress and worry about miles, upgrades, status, etc. will be finally gone and done with."

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.