This Airline Status Is So Exclusive, Even Elite Fliers Aren’t Sure How They Got It - Kanebridge News
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This Airline Status Is So Exclusive, Even Elite Fliers Aren’t Sure How They Got It

Loyalty isn’t dead—at least not for these road warriors with top-tier, hush-hush status

By DAWN GILBERTSON
Thu, Jun 6, 2024 8:56amGrey Clock 4 min

Bonnie Crawford was in danger of missing a connecting flight to Toronto for a board meeting last week when a United Airlines customer-service representative saved the day. She got rebooked on a pricey nonstop flight on Air Canada in business class. For free.

You’re probably thinking, “No airline ever does that for me.” Crawford isn’t just any frequent flier. The chief customer officer for a software company and Portland, Ore., resident has United’s invitation-only Global Services status.

It’s a semi-secret, status-on-steroids level that big spenders strive for every year. American and Delta have souped-up statuses, too, with similarly haughty names: ConciergeKey and Delta 360°. The airlines don’t like to talk about what it takes to snag an invite, how many people have such status or even the perks. Even the high rollers themselves don’t know for sure.

Get into these exclusive clubs and you get customer service on speed dial, flight rebooking before you even know there’s trouble, lounge access and priority for upgrades. Not to mention bragging rights and swag. People even post unboxing videos of their invites on YouTube.

Anyone with this super status needn’t fret about the value of airline loyalty or the devaluation of frequent-flier points.

Crawford was invited to Global Services for 2017 and was hooked. “It was the first taste of this magic, elusive, absolutely incredible status,’’ she says. She wasn’t invited again until this year and fears she won’t be invited back next year due to fewer costly international flights in her new job.

Shrouded in secrecy

Airlines don’t publish qualifications for Global Services, Delta 360° or ConciergeKey. That doesn’t stop road warriors from speculating in online forums about the required spending levels ($50,000-plus a year is mentioned a lot) and travel patterns (lots of high-cost international flights in premium cabins on the airline, not partner carriers).

Complicating matters: Some airlines bestow the status as part of a corporate contract, with companies allowed to pick their nominees.

Scott Chandler , senior vice president of revenue management and loyalty at American Airlines , won’t divulge any metrics. He says American devotes a significant amount of time and resources to its coveted ConciergeKey program because the travelers are the airline’s most valuable. Delta and United declined interview requests and didn’t share any info beyond statements about the programs’ exclusivity.

Chandler says fliers can reach ConciergeKey status through a combination of spending on American flights, shopping portals and credit cards. How much? He wouldn’t spill or confirm the $50,000 guesstimates. He says the makeup of the membership is broader than most people think.

“They’re basically interacting with American on a daily basis, not just when they’re flying,’’ he says.

Steve Giordano of Cherry Hill, N.J., is a managing director of a flight test and aircraft delivery company that shuttles pilots to or from assignments around the globe. The company spends up to $2.5 million on airfare every year, and he has been ConciergeKey for several years. He remembers once when the dedicated customer-service desk alerted him to a cancellation in Dublin before the flight’s pilots even knew. (He was friends with the pilot.)

In April, the airline told him he didn’t qualify for this year. He says he wasn’t too disappointed because he flies United more and has Global Services status. Giordano says he noticed ConciergeKey service slipping. On a vacation to Colombia earlier this year, he says the dedicated customer-service line and a gate agent were no help getting him home after a series of flight issues. He complained and received a form letter back. A spokeswoman says the airline sees higher satisfaction scores from ConciergeKey members than any other customer group.

In May, the airline sent him an email renewing his status after all. American is suffering through a self-induced business travel slump and working to woo back travellers .

Ace problem solvers

Giordano has also taken advantage of chauffeured drives in luxury cars to the gate during a tight connection. In Houston, United escorted him and his business partner down the stairs to the tarmac and drove them in a Jaguar to their next plane. Delta uses a Porsche , American an SUV.

“CBS Mornings” co-host Gayle King has ConciergeKey and hitched a ride like that in April and thanked the American Airlines employees who helped her in an Instagram post .

Those transfers are far from routine. Travellers with the status say the most prized perk is quick help when flight troubles of any kind arise.

A senior partner with a major consulting firm who has earned status in all three programs says a United Global Services representative called him on his way to the airport a few weeks ago after noticing that he hadn’t arrived for his flight. The cutoff time for losing his seat was approaching. They saved his seat after he confirmed he was en route.

In Charlotte, N.C., last week, as the executive was sprinting to his connecting flight, a ConciergeKey representative called the airport to make sure the gate agent knew he was coming. Boarding had ended. He got on the plane.

“That’s the stuff that makes the difference,’’ he says. “That’s the s—t that gets you home.’’

There is a limit, of course.

“They don’t hold the plane,’’ he says. “If they know you’re coming, they might not shut the door as quickly.’’

Much to his parents’ chagrin, he can’t play the super-status card to help others. And all the status in the world can’t overcome weather, air-traffic delays or missing crews.

Kim Anderson , chief executive of an online lending company, is a longtime Delta loyalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Before his Delta 360° invite, Anderson had seen other travellers with the 360 bag tag on their backpacks and asked a few employees about the status over the years, but didn’t know much more. He travels a few times a month, buys extra-legroom seats or better, regularly buys a Sky Club membership and has an American Express card he uses to transfer miles to Delta. He estimates he racked up 200,000 Delta miles a year for the past few years.

Anderson was still surprised to find an invitation in his inbox a couple of years ago and says he hasn’t cracked the code.

“If I knew that, I’d put it in a bottle and sell it on Amazon ,’’ he says. He got a repeat invite this year.

Anderson says the customer service is over the top. He fired off an email complaint about rushed in-flight service in first class on a recent flight and had an answer—and bonus frequent-flier miles—before he landed.

“Those are not their trainees, I can tell you that,’’ he says.



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Savvy travellers who plan their trips around dining at their destination’s most in-demand restaurants know that securing a reservation at a top Paris eatery isn’t an easy proposition on any given day.

Come the Olympics in July, when the city is flooded with tourists, one would expect the jockey sport to snag a table to be that much more intense. But that’s not necessarily shaping up to be the case. As of mid-May, Parisian insiders such as hotel managers, restaurant owners, and local luxury concierges reported that inquiries at sought-after spots were no higher than usual, foretelling a potential opportunity for visitors looking for a fine-dining experience during the games.

The time to book falls over the next few weeks given that many top spots don’t take reservations until one month before the dining date.

The Michelin-starred Jean Imbert Au Plaza Athenee and Le Relais Plaza, both at Hotel Plaza Athenee and helmed by the renowned French chef Jean Imbert, are two examples.

Francois Delahaye, the COO of the Dorchester Collection, a hospitality company that includes the Plaza Athenee and a second Paris property, Le Meurice, says that his regular guests who are visiting for the games and Parisians who frequent the restaurants know not to call too far in advance of when they want to dine.

Further, he doesn’t foresee reservations being a challenge at either venue or at Le Meurice’s two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Le Meurice Alain Ducasse.

“Booking for the restaurants won’t be an issue because people are planning meals at the last minute,” Delahaye says. “Also, the people who are in Paris specifically for the Olympics are here for the games, not to eat at restaurants. They’re not the big-spending clientele that we usually get.”

Delahaye doesn’t expect the kinds of peak crowds that descend on fine dining during Fashion Week each spring and autumn, for example, when trying to land a seat at the three eateries is nearly impossible. “People are fighting to get in,” he says. “You need to book through your hotel’s concierge, have an inside source, or be a hotel or restaurant regular.”

Several Paris luxury concierge companies echoed Delahaye’s perspective

Manuel de Croutte, the founder of Exclusive & Private, says that Paris regulars probably aren’t planning a trip when the Olympics transpire—from July 26 to Aug. 11—because they want to avoid the tourist rush. “We’ve gotten some reservation requests from people who’ve heard about us but not nearly as many as we usually get when the very wealthy travellers are here,” he says.

During peak periods like the French Open or Fashion Week, de Croutte says that his job entails making bookings for travellers who don’t have any other way to get into buzzy or Michelin-starred establishments.

“You’re unlikely to get a table at a see-and-be-seen place without knowing someone,” de Croutte says. “No one picks up the phone or answers email.” He says his team has established relationships with managers and owners of many of the hot spots in Paris and often visits them in person to land tables.

Exclusive & Private’s Black Book of Paris restaurant recommendations for Olympic visitors span a broad range, from casual bistros to fine-dining.

Michelin eateries include the three-star Le Gabriel at La Reserve, the two-star Le Clarence near the Champs-Elysee, and the two-star Le Taillevent.

Spots without a Michelin star but equally notable are also on de Croutte’s list: L’ Ami Jean offers traditional and flavourful southwestern French cuisine, Allard is a brasserie from Alain Ducasse, and Laurent serves French food to a fashionable set.

“My favourite neighbourhood for restaurants is Saint Germain de Pres,” de Croutte says. “You’ll find unassuming but chic names with excellent food and a great vibe. You can book with these places directly if you’re here for the Olympics, but don’t wait until the last minute because they will get filled.”

He also cautions that some Paris eateries are asking for nonrefundable prepayments for reservations during the Olympics.

“Be sure you want to go before committing and ask about the refund policy if you are charged,” he says.

Stephanie Boutet-Fajol, the founder of Sacrebleu Paris, says her bespoke travel company charges a lump sum of about US$750 to make all the restaurant bookings for the Olympic period, though the price varies depending on the dates and the number of restaurants that a client requests. “Reservations around the closing ceremony are harder to come by because that’s when more elite travelers are coming to Paris and want the chic restaurants that are always difficult to get a table at,” she says.

Meanwhile, chefs at some Michelin-starred restaurants share that they have tables available during the Olympics and welcome travellers to their establishments.

Thibaut Spiwack, for one, behind the Michelin-starred Anona, serving modern French cuisine, and the culinary consultant for the popular Netflix series Emily in Paris , says that he is open for reservations.

“My team and I look forward to sharing a culinary experience with new clientele that I hope will remain in their memory,” he says.

Spiwack suggests that travellers check out other worthwhile restaurants where he himself dines. For terrific wine, there’s Lava, and for Italian, he likes Epoca where the pastas are “divine.” Janine is the best bistro in town, and Prima wins for a pizza fix, he says.

“You have a lot of restaurants in Paris to pick from,” Spiwack says. “You just need to determine where you want to go, and book as soon as you can.”