Translating United’s New MileagePlus Frequent Flier Program

You might have heard yesterday that United has rolled out its new MileagePlus program which will take effect starting on the first of the year. What’s new about it (besides the fact that MileagePlus is now back to being one word instead of two)? Not much, actually. It’s more of an evolution.

Sure, there have been a bunch of tweaks here and there, but this was far from the major dollar-based changes that had been circulated around recently. In those rumors, it was expected that United would make people spend a minimum amount of money with the airline instead of just flying miles to earn status. That might have been a smart move for the airline, but it isn’t happening. . . at least not now. You will, however, have to fly four flights on United (or Continental or COPA) during the year instead of just earning status by flying partners.

Old School MileagePlus

The reaction on FlyerTalk has been largely positive, and that probably means the program is being too generous. That is one group that’s not shy about complaining when things don’t come out favorably. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some negatives in the program here. There are. But really it’s the entry level elite members who will be the least happy. The higher up you go, the happier people will be. That’s probably how it should work. You can get the full details anywhere, so let’s just give a broad brush to see what’s going on in general.

If you’re a regular MileagePlus program member, then you won’t notice a difference. That’s the biggest takeaway here for the general traveling public. The changes are really focused around the elite levels in the program – for the truly frequent fliers.

The first level of elite status is Premier Silver, which awkwardly combines United’s Premier with Continental’s Silver moniker. To get to this base level, you need to earn 25,000 miles or fly 30 flight segments. There are a lot of people who fall into this group, many barely qualifying. The benefits really aren’t huge, but they’re getting smaller in this change. In fact, the Silver level is taking the biggest hit.

United offers free upgrades to elite members on domestic flights, but it’s already nearly impossible to get an upgrade as an entry level Premier because of the sheer volume of people trying. Those people could, however, always fall back on the fact that they could reserve a seat in Economy Plus without additional charge. That perk is gone. Now, Premier Silver members can only get Economy Plus without charge at the time of check-in. Otherwise, they’ll have to pay in advance like everyone else.

That’s a big hit to Silvers since that perk was a big selling point for flying United, but I can absolutely understand why United’s doing it. You get a lot of people in that Silver level, even more with the combined United and Continental pool of people, and that means that your more frequent fliers might not be able to get that Economy Plus seat they wanted. This way, United culls the demand until travel time and the “more important” elites get their pick of seats in advance. Still, Premier Silvers won’t be happy. (In general, I’ve found it’s harder to make an entry level elite happy than anyone else so this might have been a lost cause anyway.)

But that’s not the only reduction for Silvers. Today, you can check two bags for free. That goes down to one. Not a big deal for many people, but it’s still something that Silvers will undoubtedly be unhappy about.

The next tier up is Premier Gold at 50,000 miles, followed by a new Premier Platinum tier at 75,000 miles, and then Premier 1K at 100,000 miles. In case you were wondering, yes, 1K is really a misnomer. 1K still means 1,000 and not 100,000 in the real world, so why is United using this nomenclature? My understanding is that back in the day, this was an internal code for the top status level. It stuck and made it in the public lexicon. Now it’s a name so synonymous with top status that United is keeping it around even though it sticks out in the new naming convention like a sore thumb.

On top of that, there will still be the Global Services program which is based on the amount of money you spend when you fly. There is no public qualification threshold for this program, but if you’re awesome, you’ll be invited.

As you go up the ladder, the benefits generally get better. But much of the real benefit is just where you sit in the pecking order and not necessarily a different benefit. In other words, a 1K gets upgraded before the other elites. So the benefit is technically the same, but 1Ks get first crack.

The higher up you are on the food chain, then the more goodies you get. Silver members get 25 percent bonus miles when they fly while 1K members get 100 percent bonuses. There are also bonuses for buying more expensive tickets in order to give some sort of additional incentive to pay up.

There’s a new enhanced million miler program as well. Basically, if you’ve had the unfortunate need to fly over a million miles in your life, then United rewards you with permanent elite status. Each additional million miles gets you higher up the ladder with more goodies along the way. I guess if you’ve truly flown that much, then you deserve something to keep you from wanting to jump off a cliff. That’s a LOT of flying.

So those are the basics. In the end, this isn’t a huge change, and it’s not really a bad change either . . . unless you’re a Silver. Then you aren’t happy, but you can probably understand why these changes are being made, right?

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