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The top innovations in airline loyalty of 2020 — and TPG’s Editors’ Choice award winner

The Points Guy logo The Points Guy 11/18/2020 Zach Griff
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icon: Airlines Week banner for the 2020 TPG Awards © The Points Guy Airlines Week banner for the 2020 TPG Awards

In “normal” years, November (and December) is usually time to consider a mileage run.

Maybe you’re within an earshot of a higher status tier or you’re about to cross the threshold for additional upgrade certificates. If you weren’t going to organically hit these milestones, then some (crazy) people, myself included, might consider flying somewhere just to hit the threshold.

Well, 2020 is far from normal. Instead of mileage runs, every major U.S. carrier has extended currently valid elite status through 2021.

As part of these loyalty program updates, carriers have also announced some innovations. We’ll recap the best ones here, and then award one airline with an Editors’ Choice award for best loyalty innovation of 2020 as part of Airlines Week at the TPG Awards.

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In This Post

Alaska: Offering full status to those on a challenge

Almost every major U.S. airline offers some form of a status match or challenge program. Say you’re loyal to one airline but decide — for whatever reason — that you’d like to try a competitor. Instead of starting from scratch, you can frequently get temporary status for a short period of time — during which you need to complete a set amount of flying and/or spending to keep the status for the rest of the year.

And of all the airlines that offer these programs, Alaska’s the only one that granted full status through the end of 2021 for those participating in a challenge. If you initiated one with Alaska between Dec. 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020, your temporary status was extended through Dec. 31, 2021. This is incredibly generous and certainly well above expectations.

RELATED: What is Alaska Airlines elite status worth in 2020?

American: Basic economy changes and more

American Airlines has used the pandemic to make a slew of updates to its AAdvantage program.

For one, the carrier is the first of the Big 3 to relax basic economy restrictions. Since Oct. 1, elite members can enjoy their perks when purchasing basic economy tickets. This includes free access to extra-legroom Main Cabin Extra seating, the ability to enjoy complimentary (and confirmed) upgrades, and the option to make same-day confirmed flight changes.

This is a big deal. Previously basic economy tickets were non-changeable and non-refundable — and elites couldn’t enjoy any of their benefits on these fares. (In exchange for all the new perks, AA is eliminating the ability to earn elite-qualifying miles, segments and dollars on basic economy tickets effective Jan. 1, 2021.)

But American isn’t stopping there. It’s the first U.S. carrier to announce changes to earning elite status in 2021. In addition to lowering the qualifying thresholds, the Fort-Worth-based carrier is counting all flight activity from Oct. 1, 2020 through Dec. 31, 2021 for elite status in 2022.

Finally, the carrier has joined Southwest in making award tickets fully flexible. Effective Nov. 11, all AAdvantage awards, including revenue-based Web Specials, can be changed or canceled before departure for free. If you decide to cancel a trip, you’ll receive the miles back and a refund of the taxes.

RELATED: Exclusive TPG interview with American’s president of AAdvantage

Delta: Two-time extensions

Delta was the first U.S. carrier to announce elite status extensions into 2021. As part of the news, Delta also made it easier to earn elite status in 2021 for 2022 — all Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) earned in 2020 will roll over to 2021.

But that’s not all. The carrier has been the most generous in terms of extending other associated loyalty benefits.

As such, Delta is the only U.S. airline to have extended perks twice. Most cobranded credit card benefits, such as companion certificates and flight credits now expire at the end of 2021, which should hopefully give flyers enough time to use them.

JetBlue: Gifting a year of top-tier status

JetBlue was the last of the major U.S. carriers to extend elite status through 2021.

But the airline made up for its tardiness with a very lucrative promo for its loyal Mosaic flyers. Every Mosaic member could gift a full year of status to a friend or family member of their choosing.

a airplane that is sitting on a chair: Photo by Zach Griff / The Points Guy © The Points Guy Photo by Zach Griff / The Points Guy

While JetBlue’s announcement was generous, the carrier quietly increased the cost of extra-legroom Even More Space seats purchased with TrueBlue points a few months later — a big devaluation to Mosaic elites.

Southwest: Convert vouchers to points

Southwest is very different than the other U.S. airlines.

It’s the sole carrier to have never charged change or cancellation fees, even on non-refundable tickets. If you cancel a non-refundable ticket, you get a Travel Fund that’s valid for one year from the date of when your ticket was issued (for use by the ticketed passenger only).

Due to the pandemic, Southwest offered a limited-time opportunity to convert Travel Funds to Rapid Rewards points. The conversion rate was quite generous. Plus, Rapid Rewards points can be used for anyone, not just the person listed on the Travel Fund.

RELATED: Complete guide to coronavirus and airline elite status

United: Making it easier to earn status through credit cards

Hours after Delta announced elite status extensions, United matched.

The Chicago-based carrier also unveiled a lucrative promotion making it easier to earn elite status through cobranded credit card spend. From May 1 until Dec. 31, you can earn double the Premier-Qualifying Points (PQPs) from the United Explorer Card family or quadruple the PQPs from the United Club Infinite Card family. Unfortunately, PQP earned from cobranded cards are only applicable up to the Premier Platinum level.

RELATED: What is United Airlines elite status worth in 2020?

While United deserves credit for making it easier to earn status without flying, the carrier has used the pandemic to make a host of negative changes to MileagePlus, too. UA has removed partner award charts, increased partner award costs, added another close-in mileage surcharge, made it harder to earn status through partner flying and more.

Of course, the airline also deserves credit for being the first to announce its no-change-fee policy that caught industry observers by surprise — an update that may be only the beginning of what’s to come in 2021.

Notable mentions

While we’ve so far focused exclusively on U.S.-based carriers, both Air Canada and Virgin Atlantic deserve mention for innovation in the loyalty space.

For one, Air Canada unveiled a completely overhauled Aeroplan program earlier this month. The new Aeroplan launched on Nov. 8 with a ton of flyer-friendly innovations like points sharing, the ability to earn status exclusively through credit card spend, the promise to keep award charts and much more.

Virgin Atlantic made a surprising, yet welcome, change when it announced that award redemptions will earn elite-qualifying credit as of Sept. 1. This permanent adjustment makes Virgin Atlantic one of the only airlines to count award tickets toward elite status. The move underscores the point that you’re a valued flyer, regardless of whether you’re on a revenue or award ticket.

The winner is …

While every airline loyalty program has innovated in 2020, only one can win the Editors’ Choice award.

a large passenger jet sitting on top of a tarmac at an airport: Finding saver awards on American’s Airbus A321T has been quite hard (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy Finding saver awards on American’s Airbus A321T has been quite hard (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

And that award goes to American Airlines AAdvantage. The carrier has made the most sweeping updates to its loyalty program. From improving the basic economy experience to being the first to announce changes to earning elite status in 2021 to eliminating all award fees, AAdvantage deserves kudos for being the most innovative in 2020.

Here’s hoping these innovations are just the start for airlines as they look to woo back loyal travelers in 2021 and beyond.

All photos by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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