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精英常旅客特权不再?

Have Elite Fliers Been Downgraded?
精英常旅客特权不再?

A STEADY rain was soaking the windows of La Guardia Airport when Nancy Thode, an elite frequent flier with Delta Air Lines, approached a gate agent with a pressing question: Had her request for an upgrade cleared?

在纽约拉瓜迪亚机场,窗外的雨水正顺着玻璃连绵不绝地流淌下来。达美航空(Delta Airlines)的精英常旅客南茜·索德(Nancy Thode),走上前迫切地询问登机口的服务员:她升级舱位的请求到底批准了没?

Glancing at her computer, brow furrowed, the agent was not encouraging: “You are No. 13.”

服务员瞄了一眼电脑,眉头一皱,答案并不令人振奋:“你排第13号。”
 

But with a nearby video monitor showing that more than half of the 26 first-class seats were already claimed, Ms. Thode knew her chances were slim. “If somebody comes — diamond, platinum or gold,” the gate agent pointed out, “they’re going to get it.”

不远处的监视器上显示,头等舱26个座位,超过一半已经有人订下了。索德知道她的机会颇为渺茫。登机口服务员说:“如果有钻石、白金或者金卡会员来的话,座位就是他们的。”

Minutes later, Rick Triana, a business traveler, strode up, the word “diamond” emblazoned in capital letters on the tag attached to his Victorinox wheelie-bag. Despite seeing his name at the top of the upgrade list, he confirmed his spot with an agent anyway, lingering around afterward to make sure he wouldn’t be bumped. “You never know,” he said.

几分钟后,商务旅客里克·特里亚纳(Rick Triana)大步走了过来,他的维氏带轮旅行包上,有标签用大写字母印着“DIAMOND”的字样。虽然他看见自己的名字排在升舱名单最前面,他还是跟服务员确认了一下他的位置,之后又在旁边等着,确保他不会被挤掉。“你永远拿不准的。”他说。

As the boarding time neared for the Atlanta-bound flight, the upgrade list began to shrink. Mr. Triana was upgraded to first class. So was a gold-level flier (though his wife was not). Ms. Thode, a social worker from Stamford, Conn., dispatched a friend she was traveling with to check on her status. Bad news. “I get knocked off for the diamonds,” she sighed. “Silver just doesn’t make it.”

在这班去往亚特兰大的航班接近登机时,升舱的名单开始渐渐缩短。特里亚纳升到了头等舱,一位金卡会员也是(不过他的妻子却升不了)。索德是来自康涅狄格州斯坦福德的社工,她叫了同行的一位朋友去查询她的舱位情况,得到的是坏消息。“我被钻石会员挤掉了,”她叹了口气:“银卡会员就是没机会。”

Elite status in an airline loyalty program used to be something of an exclusive club, rewarding those who flew the most — typically between 25,000 and 125,000 miles a year, depending on the carrier — with perks and sought-after upgrades into business or first class. These days, though, the advantages of being an elite flier are harder to gauge. The private lounges are more crowded, the priority check-in lines longer. And on some flights there are so many elites that it’s become almost a joke: “Never go to check-in at the elite line; it’s way too long,” said Randy Petersen, the founder of frequent flier Web sites like FlyerTalk.com and MilePoint.com.

航空公司会员忠诚服务计划(loyalty program)中的精英会员——精英常旅客,曾经是个特权俱乐部,向那些飞得最多的人(根据不同航空公司的标准,通常为一年2.5万至12.5万英里不等)回馈额外的优待,其中广受欢迎的福利就有商务舱和头等舱升级。但如今,作为精英会员的优势变得更加难以衡量。私人休息室比以前拥挤,优先办理登机手续的队伍也比过去更长。在某些航班,精英会员的人数多到几乎成了笑话。FlyerTalk.com和MilePoint.com等飞行常旅客网站的创始人兰迪·彼得森(Randy Petersen)说:“千万别去精英柜台办理登机,队排得实在太长了。”

What’s happened? A few things. As the airline industry has merged and shrunk over the years in order to survive, fewer seats on many routes mean scarcer upgrades for top-tier fliers. Meanwhile, the number of travelers with some sort of elite status has grown. Elite fliers are so concentrated on some flights, like San Francisco to New York or Chicago, Mr. Petersen said, that “when they call early boarding, for 196 people on a plane, only 18 people will stay seated.”

这到底是怎么了?中间确实发生了一些事情。这些年来,随着航空公司通过合并和收缩来维持生存,在许多航线上,座位比原来少了,这意味着高端乘客升舱的名额会更加紧张。与此同时,各种拥有精英会员资格的旅客数量增加了。在某些航线上,比如从旧金山飞往纽约或者芝加哥的航班,精英会员非常密集,彼得森说:“当他们召集优先登机乘客时,在一趟196人的航班上,只有18个人没应声走出来。”

But it’s not only that there are more elites these days; it’s also that non-elites can now buy those once-reserved perks à la carte.

这年头不仅是精英会员人数变多了,而且非精英会员也可以照单购买那些曾经只留给少数人的额外待遇。

Don’t want to wait in line at security? Pay for the express line. How about airline lounge access? That’ll be $50 for a day pass, or the right credit card will get you in for free. Even upgrades are for sale, if seats are available.

不想排队过安检?花钱从快速通道过。想进候机室休息吗?一天的门票是50美元,某些特定信用卡的持卡人也能免费进入。只要还有空位,甚至舱位升级也都是可以出售的。

While all this may be good news for travelers who fly just once or twice a year, elite frequent fliers say that the moves have been eating away at the cachet and precious privileges that come with elite status.

这对于那些一年只飞一两次的旅客来说或许是好消息,但精英常旅客却会说,这些举措正在侵蚀精英会员地位带来的优越感和珍贵的特权。

“It’s certainly degraded the experience,” said Tom Majewski, an investment banker from Darien, Conn., who flies about 100,000 miles a year and is an elite flier with both Delta and American Airlines. For a flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in November, he showed up with his family at the Delta Sky Club at La Guardia, which like other Delta lounges is accessible to frequent fliers at a discounted membership rate tied to their status, as well as to anyone with a platinum or Delta Reserve credit card from American Express.

“它肯定让整个体验降级了,”来自康涅狄格州达里恩的投资银行家汤姆·马耶夫斯基(Tom Majewski)说。他每年大概飞行10万英里,在达美和美国航空都是精英会员。去年11月去往弗罗里达州劳德尔堡时,他和家人来到拉瓜迪亚机场的达美天空俱乐部,这里和达美的其他休息室一样,准许精英常旅客以和会员身份相应的折扣价进入,而任何白金会员,或者美国运通(American Express)的达美里程信用卡持有人,也同样可以进入。

“There was not a seat to be had,” he said. “It was jam-packed.” So the family loaded up on free snack mix and sat out by the gate, where there were still open seats. His big beef, however, is not how crowded the lounges are, but the difficulty in getting upgrades, especially on international flights and popular business routes like New York to Los Angeles. “Slowly but surely they’re scaling back the best frequent-traveler benefits,” he said.

“当时里面一个座位都没有,”他说:“挤得满满的。”于是这家人领了一堆免费小吃坐在了登机口旁边,那里还有一些空座位。而最让他不爽的,不是休息室有多么挤,而是要升级舱位有多么困难,特别是国际航班和像纽约到洛杉矶这样的热门商务航班。“他们确实正在逐渐削减精英常旅客最好的待遇。”

Airlines maintain that even though they’ve begun to offer frequent-flier perks for sale, elites are their priority. While credit-card holders and those who pay for priority boarding can be seated ahead of the masses, that group is called to board after top-tier fliers. As for purchased upgrades, they’re generally offered only after they’ve been made available free to elite members.

而航空公司则强调,虽然他们已经开始出售精英常旅客的额外待遇,但他们优先考虑的还是精英会员。信用卡持有人和那些花钱购买优先登机权的旅客,可以比其他人先登机,但这一类旅客会排在顶级会员之后。至于舱位的升级,通常也只在已经免费提供给了精英会员之后,才会出售给其他旅客。

“We carefully balance benefits for our credit-card programs so that we match them with popular items like first bag free and priority-boarding availability while not taking value away from our Medallion customers,” said Paul Skrbec, a Delta spokesman.

“我们很仔细地为信用卡项目中的福利寻找平衡点,所以我们给它配套的是像首件行李托运免费和优先登机权这样的热门待遇,同时又不会拿走属于我们勋章计划(Medallion)客户的价值。”达美航空的发言人保罗·斯克尔贝克(Paul Skrbec)说。

用钱堆砌的“平等主义”

YET it is the airlines that, in ever more profitable deals with credit-card companies, have been diluting elite privileges in the first place.

然而一开始,正是航空公司自己在这些更有利可图的信用卡合作项目中,削减了精英会员的特权。

It was 1981 when American Airlines kicked off the loyalty program craze by introducing the first miles-based frequent-flier program. Other airlines followed. Back then, the programs were designed to reward a small cadre of road warriors. Today they provide airlines with piles of cash from selling miles as part of a multibillion-dollar business that features big banks, retailers and global airline partnerships.

美国航空在1981年推出了第一个以里程为基准的精英常旅客计划,掀起了会员忠诚服务计划的风潮,其他航空公司也步其后尘。在当时,这些计划是为了回馈少数空中飞人而设的。如今,它们作为大银行、零售商和全球航空合作项目等数十亿美元产业当中的一部分,通过出售里程数,为航空公司带来大量的财政利润。

North American airlines generated an estimated $15 billion in ancillary revenue last year, according to Amadeus, the global reservations processor, and the IdeaWorks Company, a consulting firm. “Half of that is from frequent-flier programs,” said Jay Sorensen, the president of IdeaWorks.

据全球订票处理系统Amadeus和咨询公司IdeaWorks的估算,去年北美航空公司(North American Airlines)大约创造了150亿美元的副业收入。“这其中有一半是来自常旅客计划,”IdeaWorks的总裁杰伊·索伦森(Jay Sorensen)说。

But up until a few years ago, while consumers could earn miles by, say, using a certain credit card, those miles could not be used to earn elite status. Only qualifying miles — those traditionally earned by flying — could make someone elite.

但直到几年前,当消费者可以通过使用某种信用卡来挣取里程数时,这些里程数还不能为他们挣来精英会员身份。只有合格里程——通过实际飞行积累的里程——才能让旅客成为精英会员。

What is different now is that qualifying miles, too, are on the table in this giant global exchange, thus enabling people to buy into elite status without ever boarding a plane. On some airlines, like US Airways, consumers can buy status outright. And qualifying miles, like regular miles, are now being used as credit-card lures as well. The $450-a-year Delta Reserve card from American Express, for example, offers 10,000 qualifying miles with your first purchase. For spending $30,000 in a calendar year, you get 15,000 more qualifying miles, and when you hit $60,000 in annual spending, you get another 15,000. Those bonuses alone are enough to earn you Silver status.

如今不一样的是,在这个全球化的交易大环境下,连合格里程都可以摆上桌面叫卖,从而也让人可以完全不需要坐飞机就能买到精英会员地位。在某些航空公司,比如全美航空(US Airways),消费者可以完全用钱买到会员级别。而合格里程如今也像常规里程一样,被用作信用卡的诱饵。比如,美国运通450美元一年的达美尊享信用卡(Delta Reserve),在你头一次订票时即送出1万英里的合格里程。在一个日历年度内消费满3万美元,就会再得到1.5万英里的合格里程,而当年度消费达到6万美元时,还会再得到1.5万英里。单是这些奖励就足以让你拥有银卡会员身份。

While airlines are generally reluctant to discuss the number of people who have qualified for elite status, Mr. Petersen, who has been tracking loyalty programs since 1986, estimated that about 10 years ago, it used to be 2 or 3 percent of active program members. “Today,” he said, “it’s more like 6 percent.”

航空公司通常不愿意谈论精英会员的人数,但从1986年以来就一直跟踪会员忠诚计划的彼得森估计,在大约10年前,(在所有乘客中)活跃的精英会员大概有2%至3%。“现在,”他说:“已经接近6%。”

All of this affects the value of actually being elite. “The silver guys, the lowest elite level, has become somewhat the throwaway level in the upgrade pool,” Mr. Petersen said. “Far less than 50 percent of the lowest tiers are able to get the benefits out of the upgrade part of elite status.”

所有这些都会影响精英会员地位的实际价值。“精英会员当中的最低级别是银卡会员,在申请升舱时,从某种程度上来说是被遗弃的一群,”彼得森说:“最低级别会员能够从升舱福利中得益的远不到50%。”

Most frequent fliers, including Mr. Petersen, agree that, despite the erosion of many benefits over the years, elite status still comes with a few perks worth striving for — including faster security lines; free checked bags, allowing elite passengers to avoid the overhead-bin scrum; rebooking priority when a flight is oversold; and often better access to award seats. And there is no doubt that traveling as an elite is better than the alternative. Though lounges may be more crowded, there are still free snacks and private bathrooms. And lower-ranking elites still have a decent chance of scoring an upgrade on flights that are not so popular with business travelers.

包括彼得森在内的大多数精英常旅客都承认,尽管这些年来很多会员福利都缩水了,但精英地位还是有一些值得追求的额外待遇:包括更快捷的安检队列,免费托运更多行李以让精英旅客避免争抢有限的机舱行李架空间,还有在机票超售时的重新订票优先权,以及更多的赠票机会等。毫无疑问,以精英常旅客身份坐飞机还是比一般人更优越的。虽然休息室可能更挤了,但仍然有免费小吃和独立卫生间。而且在那些非热门的商务航班中,低级别精英会员还是有很大机会申请到舱位升级的。

Recognizing that expanding elite programs needed something new to strive for, some airlines have established new top categories, widening the gap between elites at the head of the line and those behind them. Delta added a fourth tier — diamond — in 2009 to reward travelers who had long since passed the 75,000-mile benchmark for top-level elite status. Diamond became the new top status bestowed on customers who earn a minimum of 125,000 miles a year. When United merged with Continental, it also moved from three elite tiers to four.

在意识到精英会员计划的扩大需要新的东西来吸引旅客后,一些航空公司设立了新的会员最高级别,进一步将最顶端的精英会员与其他精英会员分开。达美航空在2009年增加了第四个级别——“钻石级”——来回馈那些飞行里程远远超过最高级别会员7.5万英里标准的旅客。钻石级成为新的会员最高级别,授予那些每年至少飞12.5万英里的客户。而在联合航空(United Airlines)与美国大陆航空(Continental Airlines)合并之后,他们也将精英级别从三个提升到了四个。

At the same time, some benefits at the lower levels have been scrubbed. In March, Delta reduced the number of free checked bags for the lowest tier of its elite fliers from two to one. And United has discontinued its perk of letting PremierSilver frequent fliers — the lowest level, at 25,000 miles a year — reserve Economy Plus seats with extra legroom when buying a ticket. Now, those elites must wait to reserve an Economy Plus seat at check-in — that is, if a higher-ranking frequent flier or customer who paid extra for Economy Plus hasn’t nabbed the last one. (United said the change was made to ensure that higher-level elites, who tend to book closer to departure, have first dibs on Economy Plus seats.)

与此同时,一些较低级别精英会员的福利也被取消了。在3月,达美航空将其最低级别会员的免费托运行李数量从两件减少到一件。而联合航空也终止了一项福利,他们的高级银卡会员(每年飞2.5万英里的最低级别会员)不能再在购票时预留豪华经济舱座位了。现在,那些精英会员必须等到办理登机手续的时候,才能预定豪华经济舱座位——前提是更高级别的精英旅客或者额外付钱买豪华经济舱位的客人没有把位置占满。(联合航空说,更高级别的精英常旅客通常都在出发前才订票,而这些变动就是为了保证他们能优先得到豪华经济舱座位。)

But the erosion of elite benefits over the years also extends to certain intangibles like longer hold times and indifferent customer service attitudes toward top-tier fliers. “Ten years ago a top-tier loyalty program member would have received consistently excellent service from airline representatives,” including certain unwritten favors, like the elimination of change fees, or opening up award inventory on a given flight, said Ryan Lile, a travel consultant based in Portland, Ore., who specializes in award bookings and maximizing frequent-flier benefits. “They would really make an effort to impress the customer and not nickel-and-dime you.” Today, he said, a top-tier flier “would be laughed at” for making such requests.

然而,这些年精英会员福利的缩水,已经延伸到了某些软性的服务上面,比如电话持线等待时间更长,对待顶级精英会员的服务态度越来越冷淡等等。在俄勒冈州波特兰市工作的旅游顾问赖恩·里尔(Ryan Lile)专门负责赠票和常客利益最大化业务,他说:“10年前,忠诚计划的最高级会员会持续得到航空公司代表的优质服务,”包括一些不成文的优惠,比如免费改签,或者由会员任意选择某个航班上的各项会员奖励等。“他们真的会努力去给客人留下良好印象,并且不会跟客人斤斤计较。”他说,如今,如果一个精英会员去申请那些优惠的话,“会被取笑的”。

SO who is it that the airlines are rewarding these days? Those who pay up. Airlines are increasingly giving their best rewards not to just passengers who fly the most but also those who pay the highest fares. If an elite customer buys a full-fare coach seat, for example, that person will typically trump another elite in the same tier who has not when it comes to an upgrade.

那现在航空公司照顾的都是些什么人呢?是那些付钱多的人。航空公司最好的优惠已经不是留给那些飞得最多的人,而是越来越多地给予那些花钱最多的人。例如,如果一个精英会员付全价买了一个经济舱座位,他在申请升舱的时候,基本上会先于同一级别但没有买全价机票的精英会员。

Some airlines have built this thinking into their award programs. In 2010, Southwest moved from a system that awarded participants credit for flights to one that awards points based on the amount of money spent. And airlines have long offered invitation-only programs like United’s Global Services and American’s ConciergeKey, which lavish perks on those who spend the most on flights.

一些航空公司已经将这种思维用到了他们的奖励计划当中。2012年,西南航空(Southwest Airlines)放弃了原有的以旅客里程数为基准的奖励系统,转而以花费金额为基准奖励旅客。而很多航空公司的项目,比如联合航空的环球服务(Global Services)和美国航空的尊贵会籍(ConciergeKey)等,在很久以前就开始提供只有受邀旅客能够参加的服务项目,将大量福利馈赠给那些在航班上花最多钱的人。

“Whether or not you are the best customer is not as important as it used to be,” said Rick Seaney, the chief executive of Farecompare.com, a travel Web site. Frequent-flier programs are actually more egalitarian. You get the perks, regardless, “if you have enough money.”

“你是否是最好的顾客,这已经不像过去那么重要了,”旅游网站Farecompare.com的首席执行官里克·西尼(Rick Seaney)说。精英常旅客计划现在其实更趋于平等主义。无论你是谁,都可以得到福利,“前提是,你钱够多。” 
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