The Complete Guide To Airline Loyalty Programme Terminology


Airline loyalty programs can be confusing and difficult to work around. You are often bombarded by acronyms like PQDs, MQSs and such. So, read on to find out what all these acronyms mean, and how they affect you in your progress to Elite status.

Delta One Suites. Photo: Delta

Revenue based programs

Historically, airlines had a distance-based loyalty program. Once you had flown a certain distance you would then qualify for a level of Elite status. Over the last few years airline loyalty moved to a revenue-based program to make it more rewarding for their best customers.

Someone who flew the cheapest economy tickets long haul (transatlantic for instance) was not as valuable as a traveler who flew much shorter routes in expensive premium cabins. Effectively, the premium passenger gave the airlines more money, so they chose to recognize this by introducing the concept of Qualifying Dollars, Qualifying Miles, and Qualifying Segments.

Alaska has the only non-revenue based program in the US

Qualifying Dollars

By setting a dollar amount you have to spend with an airline, they guarantee that all status holders will have generated a given amount of revenue. Within the various airline loyalty programs, to reach each level, you need to spend a given amount. For instance, to qualify for Medallion Platinum status with Delta, you need to spend $9,000 with the airline. The acronyms for qualifying dollars are as follows:

  • Delta: MQDs – Medallion Qualifying Dollars
  • American Airlines: EQDs – Elite Qualifying Dollars
  • United Airlines: PQDs – Premier Qualifying Status

Qualifying Miles

Along with the qualifying dollars requirements, airlines needed to also reward those who traveled the most. Imagine two passengers, one takes 10 flights per year from New York to LA in First class, while the second takes 10 flights per year from LA to Tokyo in First or Business. Both would meet the qualifying dollar requirements; however, the second passenger is much more valuable to the airline. Therefore, airlines introduced the concept of Elite qualifying miles.

Earn AA EQDs to qualify for Admiral Club Entry. Photo: American Airlines

Qualifying miles are calculated as a percentage of distance flown and will include a class bonus. Often you will find the cheapest economy tickets will only earn you 25% of qualifying miles, while full economy fares will earn you 100% of the miles flown as qualifying miles. Typically, Business and First-class fares will attract a qualifying mile multiplier of 150% to 200%.


Remember that these “miles” are not award miles; they are not used to redeem for award tickets. Commonly, qualifying miles are zeroed out at the beginning of your membership year, and you then collect them to reach status through the year. The acronyms for qualifying miles are as follows:

  • Delta: MQMs – Medallion Qualifying Miles
  • American Airlines: EQMs – Elite Qualifying Miles
  • United Airlines: PQMs – Premier Qualifying Miles

Qualifying Segments

Qualifying segments are brought in to reward road warriors, since there are many travelers who commute for work. They typically take two flights per week and often more. These flights tend to be short and relatively low cost, but they do generate a significant amount of revenue for airlines.

A flight from NY to Frankfurt can be 1, 2 or even 3 segments. Image: GCMap

With so many flights, it’s easier to hit the qualifying dollar requirements, but due to the short nature of the flights, they would struggle to meet the flown qualifying miles requirements. This is why airlines give you a choice of flying a given number of miles or a number of flight “segments”. The acronyms for qualifying segments are as follows:

  • Delta: MQSs – Medallion Qualifying Segments
  • American Airlines: EQSs – Elite Qualifying Segments
  • United Airlines: PQSs – Premier Qualifying Segments

AA, Delta, And United

Each airline loyalty program has different requirement for the various levels of status, although most run along similar lines. To qualify for top tier Executive Platinum status with American Airlines, you need to achieve $12,000 EQDs, and either 120,000 EQMs or 120 EQSs.

AA earning requirements. Image: AA

By comparison, United Airlines is a little more generous with the qualifying miles requirement, but a little more demanding with the qualifying dollars required. To hit United’s top tier Premier 1K status in 2019, you need to have $15,000 PQDs, and either 100,000 PQMs, or 120 PQSs.

United Premier Qualifying requirements. Image: United

Delta is arguably the least generous of all three airlines, with a higher threshold of miles flown and segments required, although the qualifying dollars requirement is the same as United’s in 2019. To achieve Medallion Diamond Status with Delta you need $15,000 MQDs, and either 125,000 MQMs or 140 MQSs.

Delta Elite Qualifying requirements. Image: Delta

Exceptions & Waivers

Several exceptions and waivers are possible:

  • With all three airline loyalty programs the qualifying dollar requirement only applies to US residents. If your registered address is out of the US, you only need to meet the qualifying miles or qualifying segments requirements.
  • To offer an incentive to hold airline co-branded credit cards, several credit cards from all three major airlines will waive the qualifying requirements entirely or give you a set amount of qualifying dollar credits when you have hit a certain spending threshold on the card. (Spending does not have to be with the airline)
  • Again, to offer an incentive to credit card holders, several cards will award you a number of qualifying miles, when you meet certain spending thresholds.

Generally, if you are looking for a shortcut to Elite status with an airline, using a co-branded credit card will yield the best result.

Final Thoughts

If you ever wondered why airlines make their programs so complex and difficult to understand, don’t: it is done on purpose. The more difficult the program to navigate, the more likely people will miss a small benefit they are entitled to. The more benefits and perks go unclaimed, the more money the airline saves on its rewards program.

What airlines hate the most is frequent flyers who know their programs inside out and are aware of all the fine print and details. These are the guys who squeeze every last cent of value from the program. So always make sure you know everything there is to know about your chosen program.