The upside of getting downgraded

I've been suffering from frequent flier status withdrawal. It all started four years ago when I achieved global services status with United Airlines, which was no small feat.

I've been suffering from frequent flier status withdrawal. It all started four years ago when I achieved global services status with United Airlines, which was no small feat.

Forget about premier, premier executive, or even 1K. Global services is so stratospheric that United will not even reveal the criteria for selection, you just get mysteriously voted in.

The best I can figure is that it is based on the amount of money one spends on tickets. I say this because I was selected for the prestigious global services status right after a six-month assignment in London, which had me flying internationally in business class almost every week.

Global services was sublime. I was always first in line, in any line. At some airports, such as Chicago's O'Hare Airport for example, I not only had a separate check-in counter away from the teeming masses, but there was also a secret passageway that put me in front of everyone in the security queue - even people with first class tickets.

And they treated me like a truly valued customer. When I handed over my boarding pass, I was thanked for my loyalty and acknowledged for my revered status. I had a special 1-800 line with customer reps that never put me on hold, and who would bend over backward to accommodate changes in my travel plans.

In 2011, when an Icelandic volcano shut down air travel in Southern Europe, global ser- vices was able to successfully reroute my family to the nearest available airport - at no charge.

But in 2012, disaster struck. Because I flew a lot less, I was downgraded to 1K. And this year, I was demoted to a lowly premier gold status. What a loser.

Last week I was in San Francisco and arrived early at the airport for a 3:20pm flight. I noticed there was a 2:15pm plane that was still boarding, so I ran to see if I could get on it. As I approached the gate, two United reps waved and urged me to hurry up.

"Mr. Chang?" they inquired as I walked up, still out of breath.

"No," I said, "I have a ticket for the 3:20pm flight and wanted to see if it was possible to get on this one instead."

They appeared crestfallen. "Oh," one of them said. "We are missing one passenger and we thought you were him."

"So sorry," I said cheerily, "but do you think there is any chance that I could get on this flight."

They looked at my ticket, glanced at each other, then looked at me, and said, "No, I don't think so. We would have to rewrite the ticket, and it would cost you an additional $75."

"I'm willing to pay the $75," I replied, "Do you think you could get me on?"

"No," they said. "We don't have time to write the ticket for you." Then there was a brief pause and out came the question I dreaded the most from one of the staff: "What status are you?"

I looked at the floor, pointed my gaze toward my shoes, and mumbled "I'm premier gold."

"No," they replied, "we really cannot do it."

I walked back dejectedly to the gate for my 3:20pm flight. I returned a few emails, called my wife, then boarded the plane.

I had to face the truth. I was no longer the George Clooney of the skies. I was no longer king of the hill, or treated like a VIP. I had, in fact, been grounded.

I now had to accept a life of sleeping in my own bed most nights of the week, having dinner with my kids, strolling in the evenings with my wife, and actually being present with friends and family.

Maybe actually waiting my turn isn't all that bad. l

Don Spetner has served as CCO for Nissan North America, Sun-America, and Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at

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