United Furthers Trend to Offer Elite Benefits to Everyone Else

Ah the life of an elite member on United. No fees, special lines, and free upgrades to Economy Plus. It may seem like a fair reward for devoting your business to United, but the airline continues to devalue elite benefits. Now, the difference between being Premier and being Joe Schmo is becoming blurred further by allowing anyone to buy access to elite lines starting at $25.

Dennis Cary, SVP, CMO, COO, and undoubtedly owner of some other TLAs as well, correctly says “When we asked our customers what travel services are most important to them, they told us that access to priority lines was something they value highly.” It’s absolutely true that they are considered valuable, and that’s why they’re reserved for elite members. Now, United is opening it up to “a limited number of customers each hour based on time of departure” and that has me shaking my head.

Sure, people want access to the priority lines, and that’s one reason why people strive for elite status. Now, United is saying that nothing is sacred, and anything elites can get, you can buy on your own. There are two reasons why I think this is a bad idea.
Anyone Can Get United Elite Benefits
First, you clog up the elite lines with even more people. It used to be that getting elite status wasn’t the easiest thing around, and upgrades were easier to get. Now, it’s really not that tough to become a Premier, and often half the plane is full of “elite” members. (I use the quotes because they aren’t so elite anymore.) Now you add even more people and you end up clogging up the line further. This is effectively United competing with CLEAR, but instead of an annual subscription, you pay per play. It just means more people will use the lines degrading the experience for the elite member.

Second and possibly more importantly, you make becoming an elite less worthwhile as well. Getting priority lines used to be a big deal for elites, and it made people strive for that status. Now if you can just pay for it when you travel, you can be much smarter about it. Chances are you aren’t always traveling at peak times, so you can save your payment for only those times when the regular lines are bad. The cost savings you can get by diversifying your flying to other airlines that are likely less costly will easily pay for the few times you need to pay for the elite line pass.

It’s entirely possible that regular passengers won’t find it worthwhile to buy up here, and if that’s the case, then the first case won’t happen. But we know elite passengers find it valuable, and if this makes it easier for them to break the bonds of loyalty, then it’s not a good move.

Bottom line: While I could previously not get any of these benefits without becoming elite, I now have no real reason to do so except to get fees waived.

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34 Comments on "United Furthers Trend to Offer Elite Benefits to Everyone Else"

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David
Guest

Nothing wrong with selling access to elite lines in itself – but $25 is far too cheap a price to do so. Maybe starting at $100 for minor airports off-peak and a lot more for major airports at peak times might be a better idea…

RJTame
Guest
It always puzzles me that people would actually strive to get elite status, going out of there way to spend money on an airline which they otherwise wouldn’t, just to get miles/points, access to a priority line or a lounge? If this was the case, shouldn’t the airlines (and I believe some, maybe even UA, have tried) ‘sell’ elite status at the start of the year for some price? This would be a lot easier for them and they get the money straight away, plus all the money when people do fly. My opinion is a lot of ‘elite’ passengers… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member
CF, I’m actually kinda surprised you’re against this given that you’re a fan of unbundling airline services. While it devalues the frequent flyer program, I’m not quite sure how much more so than any of the other devaluations. Given that a bunch of miles are on corporate contracts, I wonder how a company would react if they were offered a cheaper contract rate but with fares that do not earn miles. Perhaps they could still offer the company’s employees “elite like” benefits (e.g. Access to the priority line and auto upgrades, etc.) but they’d save the cost of free flights… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

Oh, the one comment I forgot, kudos to them for rate limiting this and making sure they actually have a product to deliver. Given the operational clusterfuck that I think United is, I’m actually amazed they did so.

A
Guest
RJ, you bring up an intersting concept, selling Elite status up front for a given period of time, regardless of how many flights you actually take with said airline. In the a la carte model of air travel these days it’s a genius idea. Airlines could easily sell this for several thousand dollars. Undoubtedly some people would buy this and take only a couple flights getting very little benefit, or maximum profit to the airline. Only serious business travelers would buy this, not the leisure traveler or family that ponys up spare pocket change for a shorter line, etc. so… Read more »
Greg Wesson
Guest
For me personally, elite status on airlines doesn’t seem to be worth it anymore. I used to be elite on Air Canada and Continental, but with a recent move to the UK and less business travel, I am not going to achieve either this year. This year I have spread my little travel around, taking my business to the best value (a combination of lower cost and appropriate schedule). For me, Elite had two benefits – lounges and priority boarding for overhead luggage space. With my move to the UK, most of my flights are trans-continental. There always seems to… Read more »
Avleen Vig
Guest
CF, love the blog, but I can’t disagree with you more. My fundamental issue is the snobby nature of it. You’re holding the elite status to be something that makes one group better or worse than another. Now, I have no problem with snobbiness. I can be as much of a snob as the next fellow (by using words like “fellow”). My contention is that every Elite level person I’ve met is either filthy rich, or earns the miles on business trips that someone else pays for. This effectively puts Elite status benefits out of the hands of most people,… Read more »
asad
Guest
People seem to be missing the point of the Elite status, it’s meant to be for a few people, it’s why it’s called “Elite” and yes it’s not supposed to be something you can just buy for $25. I think united already sells the lounge access for $400 a year (red carpet I think they call it). United is becoming closer and closer to southwest, if that’s where they want to compete it’s their prerogative but people who can afford to travel for a bit more will switch to competing airlines as soon as they can. Take a look at… Read more »
Bill
Guest

I am one of those million mile flyers on United that finds himself crammed into the middle seat of the economy plus section. Not by choice, but because United changes my seat selection for reasons unknown to me. This has happened somewhat regularly to the point that there is no incentive to achieve elite status annually. This year I have split my travel among four airlines and saved about $4000 by making price rather than schedule the primary factor in selecting a flight. At least on United the designation elite has no meaning any more.

A
Guest
They want to get the most $ out of each customer without regard for customer loyalty. asad, I have to take issue with you on this. I don’t think any of the airlines have properly structured rewards programs to reward those that actually earn them the most revenue. As I’ve said before, it’s a joke that someone buying $200 cross country tickets gets rewards based on miles flown when I often fly under 1000 miles on one day advance purchase tickets for $1000 or more. Who is earning the airline more money? I have no problems keeing elite status for… Read more »
RJTame
Guest
I’m with A on this one. Using something regularly shouldn’t automatically give you some kind of better status – to work as it should, for both sides, the programme needs to be tied somehow to profitability. If I shop at Wal-mart/Kroger/Target every week, I don’t expect to get a frequent shopper checkout line (but there’s an idea, right?). Presumably, the small amount I contribute to the stores annual profits means it is not attractive to them to make the special aisle and give me a different color plastic bag. AAdvantage didn’t start to reward loyal customers; it started to differentiate… Read more »
The Traveling Optimist
Guest
The Traveling Optimist
$25 to stand in a supposedly shorter line? Are you kidding? On the other side of security you’re right back to the same ol’ same ol’ so why pay for the privilege of getting mistreated that much faster? By my own reckoning I’m not that important to the global economy or personally self-absorbed. Given the self check-in machines it also seems fairly counter-intuitive in most domestic travel situations. It seems United is simply confused about what it’s trying to offer. First they get ripped for presenting improvements to the front cabins and leaving coach short shrift. Now they get ripped… Read more »
ML Harris
Guest
Since one of Uniteds many underlying problems is actually creating cash flow (never a good sign for a business), I think any product that is 98% profit (like the priority line) that they can actually sell can’t really be a bad idea. What’s more, this monetarizes an elite benefit, which lets people know if they should be blowing extra money to get to Elite, which again, can’t be a bad thing. With a price on it, you have more information on whether the marginal cost is worth spending. Of course, now matter what United does, they will screw it up,… Read more »
asad
Guest
Take a look at singapore airline. “PPS Club membership will be yours when you accrue a PPS Value of S$25,000 within a period of 12 consecutive months.” and “Solitaire PPS Club membership will be yours when you accrue a cumulative PPS Value of at least S$250,000 within five consecutive years of PPS Club membership.” So it’s not true that airlines don’t keep track of who brings them the most $, SA certainly does. You can’t really compare an airline with a grocery store, the profit margin is very different. But if you rent a car regularly you will get status… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

CF – Thank you for bringing up the term Fire your customer. I love it, and something that we’ve unfortunately had to do in our business. (Telecommunications, not Airlines) I think the most controversial recent example of firing your customers is Sprint. While they flat out did this with some customers, and also encouraged others to leave (without actually firing them.) its always a tricky problem, especially in a business like the airlines where so much depends on share.

A
Guest
First rule in business is it’s harder to find a new customer than keep and existing one. My wife was “fired” as a customer from United one year when they couldn’t find a gate for her plane at ORD and she missed her connection. Ok, that happens but then United made her wait until 10am the next morning when they could’ve transferred her ticket to NW and got her home that night. I had a similar experience where I was flying CO through IAH during a rare Texas ice storm. When I checked in for the first leg of the… Read more »
Anon Coward
Guest

A said:
“Seems simple right? Now why can’t we always get service like that from the airlines?”

Those of us who quit flying United do!

AC
Guest
Not all elite members get their status through corporate contracts. I live in the Northeast and for the last 5 years have worked for small start up companies. There are no corporate airline contracts-I book my own travel, use my own credit card, and get reimbursed when I finally turn in my expense reports. I am Platinum on US Airways and quite enjoy the shorter lines, free upgrades (frequently on many flights-not always on others), and advance seat selection. The best perk is being able to secure my seat when I book my ticket either 2 weeks in advance or… Read more »
David
Guest
CF – My comment on charging on $100 for elite lines was completely serious. The easiest way to ration demand for something in limited supply, is to charge a high price for it. Those elite lines cannot be allowed to have queues of non-trivial length. By charging $25, the incentive to be / gain elite status is devalued, since one can instead just pay $25 as and when you need it, rather than paying regularly. If not someone on a ultra-cheap ticket booked months in advance can pay $25 and get many of the benefits that a FF who booked… Read more »
daren_siddall
Member
Interesting discussion. Over here in the UK the only way you get to use the “Fast Track” security line is by holding a first or business class ticket. This is managed by the airport operator rather than individual airlines so I guess it’s a bit different, but at busy times it’s definitely a major perk and is part of the premium flying experience. Virgin Atlantic offers a drive through check in and fast track to its clubhouse for it’s premium customers at LHR, something I’m sure has lured business to them especially during the T5 debacle. In an industry where… Read more »
David
Guest

CF – I agree that very few people will purchase elite line access for $100. The purpose of putting it on sale is for an airline to be able to say ‘We heard you – we’re making it available’. Could people [e.g. your parents’ generation] who are relatively wealthy but fly infrequently and book a vacation 6 months in advance getting a cheap fare be persuaded to pay up for a more civilised airport experience ? Something like elite line access should be set up as a highly profitable product, not a mass market product.

santaclarite
Guest

Why don’t they put lower level elite status on sale, and for the fools who earn it by travel, report the nominal value to the IRS on a 1099?

Louis B.
Guest

well, as a Global Services Mileage Plus member, this should be no surprise in this economic climate. After all, United only sees me as the money I bring them every year and if I decrease my flying with them, GS membership goes away. Loyalty? Yeah… it is all about the money!! That said, I do enjoy the perks of GS!

L.

Avleen Vig
Guest
AC, i’m glad you get some great treatment from US Airways. But to be honest, it sounds like the treatment I get form Alaska all the time, regardless of my frequent flier status. I had been flying with them semi-regularly for a few months (every 3 or 4 weeks). One time, my flight was delayed, and I missed two connecting flights. They put me on the next flight to an airport 50 miles farther away. They upgraded me to first class to apologize for the delays (which were NOT their fault), and paid for a taxi to get me home.… Read more »
AC
Guest
Avleen-I totally agree, you shouldn’t have to have an status to get good treatment but sadly I don’t find that as the norm on any airline. I just checked in for a United flight (booked through US Airways) and the customer service rep was rather rude when I asked her to add my FF mile number to the reservation (why it didn’t transfer I have no idea). On Alaska-once I was flying back from the West Coast and United and they had overbooked the flight. It was a red-eye and I was quite fine with window economy plus seat. They… Read more »
Albert
Guest

I’m not sure how UA does its calculation for UGS but SQ’s SGD 25k requirement for PPS club is SGD 25k first/business class only. That is, racking $25k in econ seats is not going to get you anything despite the fact that you’re bringing in the same amount. I’m guessing this has to do more with profit margins and all that.

Albert
Guest
Err, posted that too fast. I also wanted to comment that I’ve got a special place in my heart for US. UA managed to lose my bags in JFK during a Christmas trip 3 years ago and because I got transferred to a US flight (after the cancellation of a UA flight and thus the misplacement of said bags) to DC US was then responsible for tracking my bags. The people at … DC (forgot whether it was IAD or DCA) were very helpful and friendly. I’ve got another trip coming up starting in about a week’s time and by… Read more »
Louis B.
Guest

I think the criteria for UA GS is $50K on first/biz per calendar year. That is my guess, based on my experience.

Dan
Member
There’s another problem with selling access to elite security lines; you add infrequent travelers, who are willing to pay an extra $25 to access a quicker line, but who don’t travel frequently enough to actually move through the line quickly and efficiently. By limiting access to people who actually fly all the time, at least you ensure that all the people in the priority line actually know how to comply with the TSA’s absurd (and probably safety-compromising, but that’s a different matter) rules and regulations, so that at least the line moves quickly. It’s not fair to allow clueless one-time-a-year… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

Dan – At many airports (SeaTac comes to mind) the elite access line only gets you to the ID check quicker, not through the actual security line quicker.

Dan
Guest
It’s the same at my home airport (ATL), but even so, it’s annoying to see people slow up the line. I guess if I were a GOOD American, in the spirit of Sam Adams and Thomas Paine, and the people who launched the Boston Tea Party… and not just a pathetic sheep… I would clog the line myself and complain about how stupid and counterproductive the TSA’s Security Theater is… but I am ashamed to say, I am just a sheep… and all I want to do to just get through that process as quickly as possible. Yes, intellectually, I… Read more »
Evan Stone
Guest
I enjoy my Elite Status, and I do make some effort to make sure I achieve it. I also am a blatant snob. I loved it when only snobby people like me got to enjoy elite status. But, I have to admit that I agree with the anti-snob Avleen – these benefits should be available to the occasional flyer that is willing to pony up the money. If someone only travels once or twice a year they should be able to buy an elite benny like Priority boarding. But…. United would be smart to maintain the value of this benny… Read more »
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