How I'm Planning to Keep My Airline Elite Status Through the Pandemic

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As with many frequent fliers, the notion of gaining airline elite status felt like an adult rite of passage to me. In late 2019—just before the worldwide onset of COVID-19—I unlocked Delta’s Platinum Medallion status, the second highest level available. I felt a kind of satisfaction I can only imagine others feel when making moves like buying a home. Platinum status unlocked complimentary upgrades, waived fees, priority boarding, a higher priority customer service line, and four regional upgrade certificates. When I coupled the elite status with my co-branded Delta American Express credit card, which gave me access to Delta’s network of SkyClub airport lounges, visions of luxurious air travel danced in my head.

Then the pandemic hit. The last chance I had to take advantage of my status was March 2020, when I flew to Nashville and two days later, while sitting on a friend’s couch, we learned the country would be going into lockdown. After the return flight, I haven’t set foot in an airport since.

As more trips got canceled, I quickly realized I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the perks of status. Then, Delta became the first U.S. airline to extend 2020 status; all 2020 Delta elite statuses are now valid through January 31, 2022.

But the question remains: How can you build or maintain status beyond January 2022 if you may not be a frequent flier in 2021? Below is everything you need to know about Delta’s elite status requirements and how to meet them even if you won’t be able to fly.

How Delta elite status works

Delta Airlines offers four Medallion tiers for frequent fliers: Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond. You achieve this status through a semi-convoluted strategy. There are two categories you must satisfy in order to move up to the next tier of status: Time on the plane and amount of money spent.

For category one, you either need to hit a certain threshold of Medallion Qualification Miles (MQM) or Medallion Qualification Segments (MQS). The MQM are earned based on distance flown and the fare class you purchased while MQS is about the number of flights taken on Delta or partner airlines.

For category two, you either need to hit Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQD) or spend a certain threshold on your Delta-branded credit card, which is called an MQD waiver. MQDs are calculated based on the cost of your flight—minus taxes and fees—as well as any paid upgrades.

My platinum status requires me to hit 75,000 MQMs or 100 MQSs and $9,000 MQDs or a MQD waiver of $25,000 spent on eligible Delta SkyMiles American Express cards.

There are a few ways Delta helps fliers earn status: Typically the airline rolls over the MQMs you earn above the threshold to qualify for your current tier, which is a huge advantage of the program. In 2020, the airline announced it would automatically roll over all MQMs earned that year—not just the extra ones—to give SkyMiles members a jumpstart on earnings status in 2021. At the end of 2020, I had earned 33,285 MQMs, so those all rolled over into 2021. That means I need to achieve another 41,715 MQMs in 2021 order to hit Platinum again (along with either $9,000 MQDs or $25,000 of spend on the eligible credit cards).

How to earn status without flying

We still don’t know if we’ll be able to fly frequently in 2021. With safety concerns and strict travel requirements, that could still be a complicated endeavor for most of the year. 

Fortunately, there is an option to earn MQMs with Delta while grounded. Two SkyMiles credit cards award MQMs after you hit certain spending thresholds. You could use your credit card to get the MQD waiver and buy the required MQMs, but it’s a steep purchase. 

The Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card and the Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card both offer initiatives called “status boosts,” which means cardholders can earn MQMs through certain everyday purchases. For 2021, Delta has increased these boosts by 25 percent. That means Platinum cardholders will get 12,500 MQMs for every $25,000 of spend on the card up to two times per calendar year. Reserve cardholders will earn 18,750 MQMs for every $30,000 of spend and up to four times in a calendar year. 

For those starting on a path to status, both Delta SkyMiles Platinum and Delta SkyMiles Reserve have welcome offers that include a cache of MQMs. The Platinum card is currently offering new cardholders 5,000 MQMs plus 40,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 in the first three months; the Reserve card is offering new cardholders 10,000 MQMS plus 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months. 

The Delta SkyMiles Reserve, which is one of the Delta cards I hold and use for business travel, comes with a $550 annual fee. The status boost for 2021 does make it possible for Reserve cardholders to buy their way to Platinum status. In my case, I’d first need to hit $25,000 of spend for the MQD waiver. I’d also need to buy my way to 41,715 MQMs. That would require three status boosts with the hefty price tag of $90,000. If I’m unable to safely board a plane this year, all-in, it would cost me $90,000 to buy my way to Platinum status in 2022 (the $25,000 for the MQD waiver would bundle into buying the MQMs). It’s financially unrealistic for me, especially in a pandemic budget reality. 

Longer flights could be possible later this year

With the rise in access to vaccinations, I’m hopeful the ability to take longer, cross-country flights is an option in the latter part of 2021. To unlock Platinum status, it will be a price tag of at least $9,000 in MQDs, which would require paying for quite a few cross-country trips in first class. For example, a flight from NYC to Salt Lake City in July to explore some national parks would yield $1,252 MQDs and 5,968 MQMs if I flew first class. Seattle and Los Angeles flight paths offer similar MQDs for first, but they also have Delta One flights, which would help juice the MQDs a bit. But that doesn’t solve the MQM portion. The MQMs are in the 7,000-plus range, but that still means I’d need to fly at least six cross-country flights to come close to securing my status—and that’s with my rollover.

At least one international flight is a helpful way to secure status. While international travel is technically doable to some places, it’s no longer simple right now given testing requirements to return to the U.S. As a last resort, I could do a “miles run,” or a long-haul flight that would earn the majority of the MQMs I need to secure status that wouldn’t even require me to exit an airport. There are usually good options for these types of flights on Delta routes to Asia or Europe, where some countries now allow U.S. citizens as transfer passengers who don’t leave the airport. 

Through a combination of MQM status boosts on my Delta SkyMiles Reserve credit card and the likelihood I’ll be able to board some longer domestic flights this year, there’s a chance I might be able to keep my status. But barring being able to safely board planes this year, I will need to wait to rebuild my coveted Platinum tier in 2022.

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