United Introduces Elite Status for Anyone Who Wants to Buy It

United fliers will now be able to purchase elite status on a flight-by-flight basis. Is this a smart move? While I can see the merits of both sides, I find myself scratching my head here. This seems like a gamble that could backfire.

There are now two packages you can buy for your flight. Premier Travel includes:

  • Economy Plus seat
  • Priority boarding in group 1
  • Elite security line access where offered
  • Elite check-in line access
  • Bonus miles (25% of your actual miles)
  • Two free checked bags

If you get Premier Travel Plus, you get all that plus access to the Red Carpet Club and double bonus miles (instead of just a 25% bonus). With Premier Travel Plus, United also guarantees that all employees will be friendly and helpful. (Or not – but that would be worth it, no?)

So what’s really new here? Absolutely nothing. They’ve just created bundles to offer discounts when you buy a bunch of their Travel Options. You can already buy every single one of these things individually.

Anyone Can Get United Elite Benefits

How much does this all cost? It’s variable, as you’d expect. According to United, here are some sample prices (Premier Travel first, then Premier Travel Plus):

  • DC – New York: $47/$84
  • Los Angeles – San Francisco: $56/$95
  • Chicago – London: $158/$285
  • San Francisco – Tokyo: $167/$298

Since I don’t have any active United itineraries, I can’t really compare these prices to the a la carte pricing on a specific itinerary, but they say you can save up to 50%.

So what do I like about this? They should probably be able to increase sales of these options by making the whole bundle more affordable. It will probably also encourage those people who currently buy individual products to buy up to a higher level. More money is good for the airline, but . . . .

There’s one really bad thing about this. From a Mileage Plus perspective, I think they’re playing with fire. They’re diluting the value of having elite status, and that could cause defection.

What does an elite member get that someone who buys this won’t get? Well, if you’re a Premier member (the lowest status you can earn), you don’t get much at all. Theoretically, you have the ability to buy upgrades, but I don’t think Premiers have much luck getting those these days with all the full flights. Otherwise, Premier Travel is effectively buying Premier status for the day. Premier Travel Plus gives you even more than that.

The Premier Executive and 1K tiers (along with Global Services) will still have more benefits above and beyond this program, so they probably aren’t in danger of feeling alienated, but the Premier members might think twice.

Look at it this way. Let’s say I’m a customer in the LA area who flies enough to qualify for the lowest rung of elite status every year. (Actually, that IS me, but I spread out my flying so I usually won’t qualify.) Let’s say that I’ve concentrated most of my flying with United except for my trips to Dallas which have a better schedule on American. I hate when I have to check-in, board, etc with the riff-raff on other airlines, but American’s schedule makes it worthwhile.

But now, I might think twice about that. First of all, anyone can now buy elite status so it’s not really very exclusive anymore. There’s a reason that people call it having “status” in these programs. Now that anyone can walk in off the street and buy it, it’s not as attractive so I might go somewhere where I will feel more valued.

More importantly, I may look around at other options. American serves most of the same cities that United serves from LA (at least those where I’d want to go), so now I might think about switching to American. That way, I can earn my status on American and feel exclusive. But when I need to go to a city where only United flies, I can just buy elite status for the flight and get the same perks I had before.

How likely is this to happen? I’m not sure, but I do know that it’s a big risk to alienate your frequent fliers without having something else to attract them. (Let’s again assume that these are our most valued customers even though we all know that may not be the case.) Something needs to be done to the Premier level so that there is value in it once again for travelers. Otherwise, United might see them start to defect. I’m sure United is banking on wooing frequent fliers from other programs who might try United and want elite status, but that’s a big gamble.

I know these options were available individually before, and I balked at some of them then as well. This just makes it even worse by flaunting the fact that for a relatively inexpensive amount, you can buy elite status and travel just like everyone else who had to work for it.

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