Should Airlines Grant Elite Status Exceptions for Maternity Leave?

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As pretty much all working parents here are acutely aware, the United States lags behind much of the rest of the world in offering maternity (and paternity) benefits to new parents.  That is changing a little bit towards a slightly more family friendly mentality in some arenas, but by and large the best you can hope for in most situations is that your job is protected by law for 3 months and you have the ability to use any paid leave you had saved up during that time to keep some income coming in your bank account.  If you haven’t had a baby, you probably wonder what in the world do people do for three months at home with an infant – I mean, that sounds like a long (potentially) paid vacation.

40 weeks pregnant is much easier than caring for a newborn!

40 weeks pregnant is much easier than caring for a newborn!

I even have friends who in advance of having their first child came up with all these grand plans of books they will read, things they will sew, projects they will work on, etc. “while the baby is sleeping” on their maternity leave.  I just sort of chuckle to myself when I hear this because unless you have one of those mythical “easy” babies, that ain’t gonna happen.  Even then, it isn’t going to happen very much.  Between taking care of the baby, doing never ending laundry, nursing, trying to catch a quick nap, going to appointments, taking care of other kids, doing normal life stuff that still has to get done, and recovering from birth or surgery, there isn’t really any free time or energy left in those early months.  It’s all worth it, but it sure as heck isn’t a vacation.  Here is a recap of life with a one month old.

Given all that, the workplace has at least acknowledged, for the most part, that mothers need a protected period of time to heal and adjust to life with a newborn before returning to work.  One could very well argue fathers need a period of similar protected time, too.

So, since it is a given that new moms (and sometimes dads) will have a period of time before the baby is born where they are no longer traveling far from home, and then a period of time at least several months long after the baby is born that they are also probably sticking close to home, does it make sense to adjust airline elite status requirements accordingly for the year when a parent has a new child?

Now, before you bring out the “that’s ridiculous having a child is a choice” pitchforks, hear me out.  While of course for many people having a child is a conscious choice, it is also just a normal phase of life for people.  In this 2013 poll, more than 9 in 10 American adults either had children, planned to have children, or wished they had children, while only 5% said they never wished to have children.  So, choice or not, having babies is still by far a normal phase that most families go through at some point, and it obviously impacts that ability to travel whether for work, pleasure, or both.

I clearly travel a good amount, but even I stopped flying for the last two months of pregnancy and didn’t fly again until my daughter was 2 months old.  That means there were four months that I was “grounded”, and I could easily see that number being a bit higher for many who don’t hit the skies with their two month old.  Largely as a result of this, it is highly unlikely I will re-qualify for United Premier Platinum status for next year.

Back of the boarding line for you!

Back of the boarding line for you!

The last several years I have had either top tier 1K or second tier Premier Platinum status with United by flying between 75,000 – 100,000 eligible miles in a calendar year, but it just isn’t feasible to lose at least 1/3 of the year and still make-up the difference, especially since my travel (like most), will ramp back up instead of all the sudden returning exactly to previous levels.  Since I’m nursing, I can’t really even just take off and start traveling extensively without my new baby even if I wanted to (and I don’t want t0).

I have heard anecdotally of some airlines who have made exceptions for people from time to time who couldn’t travel for a specific time period by extending their elite status without them fully meeting the criteria, so I inquired mostly as an experiment to see what United’s MileagePlus Service Center response would be in my situation.  To their credit they responded very quickly within the hour, but they certainly didn’t seem interested in guaranteeing any exceptions.

The only guarantee of Premier status is via the published requirements. MileagePlus may look at other factors when considering Premier status. Promotions are sometimes created to acknowledge those who did not meet the Premier qualifications and have demonstrated their support of United Airlines. Should your account be included in any such promotion, you will be notified by regular mail or email.

Their response makes it sound like you might be retroactively given some promo or assistance with maintaining an elite level you didn’t earn via the traditional model, but there is no way to solicit or guarantee that sort of exception.  Fair enough, that is clearly within their rights, but I have to wonder if that is really the best decision for everyone involved.

United E+ seats, complimentary for some elites

United E+ seats, complimentary for some elites

Let’s assume that the new parent’s travel does dip of for a few months as mine did, and as a result they lose the elite status level they were used to as I likely will.  Then, a few months later their travel picks back up to a more regular pace but they no longer have the elite perks they used to have with a specific airline.  One has to assume that their incentive to stick with that airline when purchasing fares would then be diminished.  Sure they may simply just focus on re-earning that status and remain loyal during that transition, but it might also be a great opportunity to try out another competitor, especially if they were able to leverage the elite status they used to have for a match or a challenge with another airline.

Even if they don’t do that, they may realize that travel without elite status isn’t as horrible as they feared, and they may then care less about staying loyal to one particular airline going forward.  In either case, that could potentially be a negative for the airline that used to have their loyalty for years because of the hamster wheel that is elite status.

Now let’s look at it another way and assume that the airline did grant some leniency with elite status requirements for those out on “maternity leave” for several months.  Let’s say that the mom never again travels at the same level that they used to, and is granted this status extension but then doesn’t really give the airline very much business the following year.  In that case, the airline really isn’t out much because the perks they extended the customer weren’t heavily utilized anyway.  Many of the elite perks don’t come at a large added cost to the airline anyway, but they certainly don’t carry much of a cost if they aren’t used.  In that case the airline would simply not grant an additional exemption and no one would really be much worse for wear.

Since giving birth and having a young baby is a pretty time limited event, I’m not sure I see much downside for the airlines granting documented exceptions for traveling parents who can’t maintain a certain elite status level in a specific year because of a birth, adoption, etc.  Of course they could tweak exactly what that looks like whether it is a flat extension of status, lowered status requirements, a minimum amount of future travel booked, or whatever, but it seems relatively logical to me that some adjustments be made in order to keep the traveler and the airline linked.

Of course, I come from a somewhat biased position being the mom who will see the comforts of elite status I am used to dwindle, but United also is in a precarious position for relative exclusivity of my family’s traveling dollars, because I may determine the elite perks weren’t worth the effort and expense, or shift business to a carrier that will match the elite status I had for this year.

Do you think it would be totally crazy for airlines to grant elite status exceptions for people who were grounded for several months because of a birth or other similar time-limited event, or do you think that is something that might actually make sense for both parties?

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  1. I think it would be fair for airlines (maybe hotels too?) to consider a maternal/parental leave, after all, it costs them nothing, would be an opt-in and could be useful information to better understand their customers (targeted advertising opportunity!).

    That said, this could open the doors to similar other leaves (i.e. medical, etc.) where things may get more complicated (if health information and related privacy come into play).

    Still, I’d be curious to see if this idea gets picked up by the major airlines — it makes sense to me and I’m surprised it hasn’t come up sooner.

  2. Let’s not go that far. I am not sure how it is now since my younger is 6 years old but I remember very well when my wife was pregnant and even right after she had the baby and we were travelling with him there were NO benefits at all being offered by the Homeland Security people when we got to airports. At that time there was no Global Entry and there many times where the immigration lines were gigantic and we had a pregnant wife standing in line with no preference at all. Same happened with the baby where we waited sometimes close to 1 hour in line with the baby screaming and officers could not care less and did not give us a chance to move to a preferred line. I know this is not what you asked in your post but if our Government does not give any preference why would our airlines that still live in the Stone Age when compared to foreign airlines?

  3. I kinda think they shouldnt grant exceptions.

    Perhaps if your close to renewing your status like within 5,000 miles and can provide proof of birth then MAYBE but im fine with how it is now. Get the United mileage plus explorer card if u need free checked bags and pay for your e+ seating for a yr if you need it.

  4. I think the problem is where do you draw the line on exceptions. I can name several reasons why someone would be “grounded” for a certain amount of time. The airline then has to decide what exceptions to grant and which ones to decline and probably becomes a headache for them. It’s probably easier to say no exceptions. But i think if the customer is a HVC i’m assuming exceptions are made.

  5. Interesting.

    It really seems like it would be in the business’ interests to keep you loyal. In fact, there are certain events in a person’s life where marketers have found people establish life-long habits. One of those events, and I believe the last of them, is having a baby. New parents are just in such a constant rush that they don’t even have time to reconsider whether they could get a better deal somewhere else.

    You’d think the airlines would have caught on to that, so maybe they have research that shows parents’ flight patterns aren’t affected.

  6. I vote for exception. And while we are at it how about exceptions for those undergoing cancer surgery and chemo preventing flying for about the same time as you note. Once you lose your status and become disabled, be prepared for some shabby treatment.

    • How about broken legs? How about any hospitalization and recovery periods for individuals? How about the parents of seriously sick children? How about adult children caring for aged parents needing daily care? If one thinks about it, one could come up with lots more reasons for exceptions. Where does it end? Simple solution to the problem: EVERYONE GETS AN EXCEPTION(!) and not just the proposed special protected class advocated for here.

  7. I agree that your blog post has some merits to it. Especially those that had suffered thru a medical condition or military deployed overseas. i had success a couple years back getting United and Marriott to give me silver status (gold in both programs previously) after failing to requal due to military deployment

    • I totally agree that military deployment is another situation where some kind of soft landing or exception makes total sense!

  8. Having a child is a choice.

    There are pros and cons, and one of those cons just happens to be a loss of airline status.

    “You can’t have your cake and eat it”

    • I guess my response is, but why? Having a kid isn’t a requirement in life, but it is a pretty common phase that has a regular pattern to it. Who would it hurt to have some elite status leniency for those few months? I’m not sure it really hurts anyone and it potentially is a win for the traveler and the company.

      • It would hurt me if I were traveling on your flight and you got upgraded into the last business/first seat because of your freely extended status, and I didn’t get upgraded because I was next on the upgrade list.

        • True, but no more so than before I had a kid so it’s kind of a net neutral really since there were at least 4 months I wasn’t on those flights and getting the last upgrade even though I had status.

          • That may be true for you, but who’s to say every 9 mo. pregnant woman would make the same choices as you?

            Marissa Mayer took 2 weeks off from work, and talked about having a crib installed in her office.

            I do happen to agree with you; if the airline needs to adjust the cost somehow, they should raise elite requirements generally in order to allow for this, and I would even argue the status should be extended for a year. Studies have shown that babies determine their lifelong attachment style in the first year after birth, so it’s really critical for society to support mothers during that time.

            I just see there as being a small, indirect “cost” to the airline for it (e.g. fewer upgrades for lower elites).

          • Of course not everyone would be the same as me, but my guess is many would take longer off regular flying as opposed to shorter. I didn’t take a single day off “work” and blogged both literally in labor and the day after she was born from the hospital and every day since, but it still wasn’t hitting the skies. Agree that first year is so crucial and it really is in everyone’s best interest for slight concessions to be made in various parts of life.

    • Couldn’t respond below, but your comment about “not every 9mo pregnant women might not make the same choice as you” is a bit false because after 7 months, most women are not given a choice. Airline policy itself does not allow pregnant women to fly if they are beyond a certain point. So, and in my case, because I had my first child almost 3 months early, my doctor would not allow me to travel. So, no choice was involved. I was restricted to be within 1 hour of the hospital for the last 3 months of my 2nd pregnancy. (and 2 months in the airlines eyes.)

  9. “Having a child is a choice.”

    This is a red herring. Summer’s not talking about having the government protecting the class of new mothers against discrimination by airline elite programs; at least, the article doesn’t read that way to me.

    It reads to me like making a reasonable case that it is in the airlines’ interests to extend her status, even by just a few months, in order to keep her loyalty.

    The difference of whether having a child is a choice only matters when it comes to having the government protect/compel behavior; it’s part of the reason that protected classes include: race, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, etc. How an airline runs its operations is entirely up to the airline, and Summer’s point is valid.

    I think the only logical argument we’ve seen here against airline elite status policy changes is that it could be complicated and unfair to some classes of individuals. Seems to me like elite programs are unfair to non-elite flyers and non-members of the programs, but that hasn’t prevented airlines from having elite status programs.

    I think the best criticism I can come up with is that perhaps the government imposes some sort of common carrier requirement on airlines that they treat new mothers the same way as everyone else, but even that seems unlikely.

    • To make my point about government protection clearer, all of those statuses are not choices. You do not choose your race, disability status, etc.

      Having a child is a choice, but that only means that the government has not historically protected it.

      Individual non-governmental actors, e.g. airlines, restaurants, locksmiths, etc., are free, as far as I know, to promote having children or the interests of those with children as much as they’d like (or not).

      Therefore the question moves to whether airlines should promote that. That question is best answered indirectly: Is it in an airline’s interest to extend their elite status at no cost to them? I think you can reasonably answer that question with a ‘yes’.

  10. And the same exception to those who were subjected to layoff/downsizing etc. That wasn’t their fault either. How about re-assigned from “road warrior” to HQ based?

    Slippery slope.

  11. I think the airlines should look at this on a case by case basis. When I deployed with the military overseas Continental extended my stats for another year.

    I think maternity/ paternity leave should be like any other exception… Case dependent. If you were a 1k for 10 years in a row and then your travel patterns changed for whatever the reason, I would hope the airline would take your past loyalty into account when you start traveling again. If you hit the lowest level status for one year and then whanted it to be extended because of a change in travel patterns then maybe not so much.

  12. If they give exceptions to a condition that is absolutely a “choice”, what about those medical conditions that are not a choice? What about an exception for the father? He is entitled to “maternity leave”. Once you give one exception it starts a slippery slope that will not end.

  13. I totally agree that exceptions can be a slippery slope, but really, what is the risk here? Worst case is a status extension is granted and the customer doesn’t really return to previous levels. In that case it simply isn’t done again and everyone moves on. Seems pretty simple to be with not much risk/downside. Deployments, temporary medical issues, etc. all seem like valid reasons to me. A job change is tougher because the new job may offer very different travel patterns, but again, even if an exception was granted too leniently once, it doesn’t have to be repeated again.

  14. Beware that playing the pregnant card may turn out to be a double edged sword. I hear that Spirit and Ryan are now thinking about charging for all unborn children brought aboard and that Hilton in Israel has plans to steer pregnant customers to mangers when there is no room at the inn.

  15. Understand your reasoning and it might even be a good business decision, but agree with many other commenters that it is a slippery slope. A huge number of Americans also face medical issues or are involved in caring for others with medical problems. As mother of two, I think it is hard to say parents are more deserving of leniency. Maybe a more blanket leniency for flyers who have had a certain status for a long time, regardless of the reason? Perhaps that would help airlines keep customers from straying.
    But good that you asked…you never know!

  16. I’m not in favor of an exemption for specific reasons such as maternity leave or military service. However, I do think if someone has a certain status level for a couple of years in a row and then they don’t meet the renewal, they should be able to call in and be offered some sort of extension the following year. For example they stop flying for 4-5 months in the end of 2015 and miss 1k status, but they had 1k status for 2010-2014. In that situation I believe someone should be able to call in and ask for an extension where in the first half of 2016 they keep their status and if they hit a certain mark then the status would be extended for the rest of the year. This seems like a good business practice to keep loyal customers who may have been grounded for any number of reasons.

  17. MP, contact Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. He’ll propose a law for anything, probably even for what your advocating. The other option you have is move to one of the Scandinavian countries. They have great extended maturity benefits for both parents, check it out.

    • Ha ha. I neither want a law or a move, but agree many other countries are a bit further ahead than us with parental leave issues.

  18. Lack of sleep must be getting to you on this one… Sounds over entitled to me and frankly once you open the can of worms called exceptions…

    • Ha ha. Well, I am tired, but I just don’t see what big negative consequence there is extending status a few months or similar because of a documented reason that is time limited.

      • I usually enjoy reading your articles, but this one does sound incredibly entitled. The big negative consequence is that it would not be an exception for only one person; there are probably many people to whom this applies.

        • Alexa, I don’t think I’m entitled to an exception, I simply think it actually makes sense for both the traveler and the airline. Certainly it wouldn’t apply to just me, but I doubt there is a massive army of pregnant ladies who who care about maintaining elite status either. It just seems to make sense for both parties (loyalty is maintained both ways), but clearly not all airlines agree with me. 😉

          • MP, why do keep on advocating for this? It smacks of entitlement. It’s getting to be just more and more of the same recently: ME, ME, ME, ME!
            IMHO, less “Mommy” and more “Points” would be appreciated!
            Please, no “ha, ha” response. Thanks —-

          • Rich, I think this is very much something that is relevant to both Mommy and Points, but with a two month old around here there’s no doubt that the “Mommy” part of the equation will be more prevalent around here than it was when I just had a four or five year old. If I had to guess, years down the road, that aspect will again be somewhat less prevalent, but never far from my mind. Still, I’m missing the entitled part of this. I don’t feel entitled to anything, I just think it makes sense for both the business and the traveler.

            As a side note, when I was writing about things that others dubbed “weren’t realistic or relevant for families” I also got criticism, so you truly can’t win them all. I would just read the posts that look interesting and skip the more “mommy” centric ones if they don’t interest you.

  19. I agree you cant offer some and not other …..my husband was platinum with United and was rushed home as my appendix ruptured with complications, his work gave him time to care for me but he ended up missing a couple of flights for work, which missed us requalifying by 1,000 points or something silly and he even had a flight booked Jan 1st but oh no they would not budge after years of being with them and this year because of all the changes etc we dropped to silver, upset but that life and now using southwest more as they are cheaper.

  20. I don’t necessarily agree that this would be good practice for the airlines, but I found the topic interesting. There’s nothing “entitled” about making a reasoned argument to explain why a policy change might benefit both company and customers.

  21. Not likely, I think. Airlines are currently more concerned about lowering, not maintaining or increasing, the number of elites. If they were going to create such a policy it would be logical to extend it to several other groups — people with short-term medical issues and people with change-of-employment situations for instance. And those instances seem extremely amenable to begin gamed.

    I expect that each program already has some kind of desk that can be contacted in case one wants to engage in special pleading for an exception to the normal rules.

  22. Slippery slope, those exceptions. Military has been mentioned. How about serious illness? Someone undergoing chemo probably isn’t wanting to travel a lot, and getting cancer isn’t exactly a choice. Someone above mentioned getting laid off from a job. Illness and layoffs are not things people choose. Child bearing is (at least for today) still a choice for women.

    All that said, I don’t care what the airlines do. They’re private businesses. It’s when the government starts conferring special rights that I start getting cranky.

  23. As a travel addict and mom-to-be myself, part of me says, “HELL YA!” that would be awesome!!! The other part of me says, “Where do they draw the lines?” Not only is becoming a parent often a choice, but so is traveling (and therefore reaching elite status). I think that there are just some things that parents have to accept as part of things changing in the travel world for them when they decide to bring kids into the picture.

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