Some United Elites are Over-Entitled, But It’s United’s Fault

If you’re a United frequent flier, you certainly know by now that the airline’s CFO gave a talk at an investors’ conference recently saying that there were “certain groups in [MileagePlus] that were over-entitled.” You know what? He’s right. But that’s the airlines’s own fault.

MileagePlus Over-Entitled

Over the last several years, airlines have started to reserve what used to be considered a standard benefit as something that only elites could get for free. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, if an airline wants to play the game that way. The idea behind this strategy was one of rewarding loyalty to the airline and encouraging frequent flights.

The base level of participation in the elite program was 25,000 miles in a calendar year to earn Premier status (now called Premier Silver). If you did that, you would get a complimentary upgrades (if available), a free checked bag, priority check in, priority security, priority boarding, and yes, a seat in Economy Plus. All of this was just part of the package for becoming a United elite member.

The goal for United was to get more people flying on the airline instead of splitting their business. Maybe people would have preferred to fly Delta or American for a flight here and there, but instead they went with United in order to keep that elite status alive. At least, that was what United was banking on.

While I don’t have numbers, I assume the elite ranks swelled. As United removed more and more benefits from regular customers, the benefits of earning elite status became more clear. And really, earning 25,000 miles in a year is something that’s very possible for even a moderate traveler. That’s less than 5 roundtrips from LA to New York. Or it could be as little as a couple trips to Europe or Asia in a year. That sounds like a lot for an occasional traveler, but it adds up very quickly.

Compounding this issue is the fact that once you’re an elite member, it becomes a lot easier to retain elite status. You get bonus qualifying miles every time you fly as an elite so it’s difficult NOT to requalify if you really cared to keep your status.

The upshot was that the experience for the elite traveler got worse. There were now a ton of people with elite status, and that meant that the priority security lines became more crowded. More people were boarding early than during the general process. And even a top tier elite booking a last minute ticket might find only middle in Economy Plus. . . or none at all. Forget about the upgrade in a case like that.

Now that United has merged with Continental, the team in charge has been looking at this and realizing there’s a problem. The quest to begin fragmenting the different elite levels had begun long before, but it was accelerated in the last few months. It seemed clear that the Premier Silver members were going to be targeted with a benefit reduction, but it was more than that. Many of the Golds felt pain as well.

While before, United required annual earning of 25,000 miles for Premier (Silver), 50,000 for Premier Exec (Gold) and 100,000 for 1K (still 1K), the airline made a decision to introduce a new tier, Platinum, at 75,000 miles. Those who were between 50,000 and 75,000 saw a big reduction in earning power, but the Silver level is where the biggest hit occurred.

Sure there were some more minor annoyances, like putting Silver boarding after the rest of the “real” elites, but the biggest issue was that Silvers lost that ability to assign Economy Plus seats in advance. They could either get them assigned at check-in (if available) or they could pay for the seat in advance like anyone else.

This is the natural way for United to approach this problem of its own doing. In order to protect the benefits for the most frequent fliers, the airline had to cut back on benefits for those who didn’t fly quite as much.

And as anyone who has worked with frequent fliers will tell you, it’s those entry level elites that feel (and act) the most entitled of anyone. This is a generalization, of course, but if someone is waving status around and getting snippy, he’s probably a Silver.

The end result? There are some VERY angry people out there. Feel free to check out FlyerTalk if you’d like a sampling. But really, a reduction in benefits for lower level elites needed to happen in order to protect the benefits for the best customers.

Does that mean that the CFO should be out there saying the some elites are over-entitled? No freakin’ way. Even me and my big mouth wouldn’t have said something that dumb in a public setting. The reality is that they are only over-entitled because United set it up that way. And calling someone over-entitled makes it sound like you’re pushing the blame on to the customer, like it’s somehow that person’s fault.

In the end, United can’t add new jet bridges for boarding or more Economy Plus seats without hurting revenue integrity. So it had to find a better way to allocate benefits. But for a lot of people, it’s going to be a bitter pill to swallow. And calling people over-entitled isn’t going to make the medicine go down any easier.

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49 Comments on "Some United Elites are Over-Entitled, But It’s United’s Fault"

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Alex Hill
Member

A quibble: “Compounding this issue is the fact that once you?re an elite member, it becomes a lot easier to retain elite status. You get bonus qualifying miles every time you fly as an elite[.]”

To what are you referring here? Elite flyers get bonus redeemable miles but no bonus elite qualifying miles in most frequent flier programs.

Oliver
Guest

Correct – there are no status-based bonus EQM, just class-of-service/fare-code based bonus EQMs.

Also, the 75k /Platinum level isn’t really new. Continental had that level in OnePass. It’s new for the legacy UA elites, though. And as someone who is 1K right now but always has to “stretch” to get there it’s actually a logical and good thing to have.

Fred
Guest

fwiw, Delta does have qualifying miles rollover, so any ‘extra’ above the 25k/50k/whatever do count towards status for the next year. Which is probably partially responsible for the huge numbers of elites there.

Bobber
Guest
But that was the point, Cranky – the Mileage Plus scheme was always more generous that others, which is why they got repeat business from bottom-feeding Silver’s such as me. It’s had the desired effect on me though – last year I broke throughout the Gold level and will probably this year as well, but it won’t last. The real pain started with the introduction of unlimited free upgrades – this was a nice feature that gave lower tier elites a fighting chance of upgrading, and also provided a much easier vehicle for people to spend miles. Other than full… Read more »
Shane
Guest
While some of the capacity controls seems to make sense, some moves seem more like they are removing benefits to make the more elite feel better versus rationalizing the system. For example, does limiting checked bags to 1 for Silver really make Platinum worth more? I’m Gold this year but have been Silver the past several and will likely revert back next year. I’d give up unlimited domestic upgrades if I could get Economy Plus at booking or 48 hours out or somthing like that. I prefer the higher likelihood benefit. As it is, all elites have to search seat… Read more »
Bobber
Guest

I second everything you said, Shane.

I, too, get the sense the E+ on CO metal is not really any different at all. At the moment.

As an aside, the pilot on my LHR-IAH flight yesterday didn’t chirp up until about 250 miles out of IAH, and when he did come on the PA he sounded somewhat worse for wear – if you know what I mean. He left the set belt light on for 8hrs as well, and we had no worse than 20 mins of light chop throughout the flight. Landing was VERY hard as well.

Ben
Guest
I’ve been Silver Medallion a couple of times on Delta; once in 2006 and once in 2011. Each experience couldn’t have been more different. Obviously I got a lot of perks the first go around that I didn’t see in 2011. But I didn’t complain. Honestly, to me, the biggest perk was being able to check a couple of bags without paying for them and getting access to the front seats and exit rows in coach. If I get the bump up front, I felt grateful and knew that it was going to be a good day. However, now that… Read more »
Bill from DC
Guest

Perhaps UA would not have had this problem if, instead of dawdling for months on the E+ decision, they immediately started converting legacy CO planes to E+ configurations. Most of UA’s problems relative to other airlines are self-created; they really have a lot of work to do.

Oliver
Guest
How would that have changed the problem of too many elites competing for a limited number of resources (e.g., E+ seats)? I usually book weeks or months in advance and rarely have a problem getting a good E+ seat. But earlier this year I booked a flight seven days in advance and all I (1K, fairly expensive fare) could choose from was a collection of E+ middle seats and a few seats way in the back. Now, with silvers not being in the race for E+ seats until T-24 I would probably have a better selection to choose from. It… Read more »
Oliver
Guest

Actually, there’s a thread on FT that provides some (non-scientific) information on what Silvers are seeing now at checkin:

http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/united-mileageplus-consolidated/1321167-silvers-report-your-experience-e-seating-t-24hrs-here-6.html

Quick glance of last few pages tells me it’s not too bad.

Natalie
Guest

#United_Airlines SUCKS! I can’t believe what they have become and wouldn’t fly them again if someone gave ME the money for a flight even a short distance. They’ve lost it and hope they fold for the millionth time!!

Oliver
Guest

A very insightful comment. Are the other legacy carriers offering a less sucky experience?

Jason H
Guest
I used to come down on the side of the low tier elites. While I was usually mid-tier at both DL and UA I understood that some people stretched a bit to make Silver. Now however I have not just turned away from the elites, but also the FlyerTalk/MilePoint group as well. The attitudes I saw from a large number of the elites and FT/MP community was off-putting. I know that the attitude doesn’t equate to the removal of perks, but to me their are tangentially related. For the past 2 years or so I’ve flown whichever airline gets me… Read more »
Oliver
Guest

The Flyertalk (and to some degree MilePoint threads) have great entertainment value, though. :)

Jason H
Guest

Entertainment in some and a reminder of the degradation of civility in many others.

Sanjeev M
Guest
FT is great entertainment value for sure :) MP is not as bad but I’m sure it’ll get there. Yeah its weird how DL likes Amex cardholders as much as Silvers. Yes its not that hard to get Silver, but that’s how it should be. Our domestic legs are far too long, and service is crappy. They charge like nuts for checked bags but gate check 40 bags on a 738. And United is so cheap it can’t even offer food on a 9-hour EWR-HNL. Getting back on topic, one big problem is that employees are locked into their corporate… Read more »
Ray
Guest

I am both a mid level elite and am in complete agreement with your remarks.

Bill
Guest
I was at the gate at LGA the other day and heard a guy go up to the desk and say “did my upgrade clear? my last name is xxxx and i am a silver”. When he was told first class checked in full already, he was clear put off and said what is the point of being silver? i laughed to myself because as a 1K i didnt even have an upgrade cleared. i looked at the upgrade list online and saw this guy was number 15 out of 20 on the list. yes, someone who has traveled more… Read more »
Bill
Guest

wow – sorry for all my typos – cant figure out how to edit…

abefroman329
Guest

I was Silver Medallion from 2007 to 2009 and, as I keep telling my bosses who are working towards Medallion for this year, the real value isn’t in the upgrades, it’s in the free checked bags, priority boarding, priority assistance when your flight is cancelled, etc., etc. But back then I was upgraded most of the time – can only recall 2 flights where I wasn’t upgrade out of the 10-15 I took as a Silver. Really the key is to take unpopular flights.

RICH
Guest
We all know the Golden Goose has been dead for years…I am a 1 K with United…. So far I average about 50% of free upgrades in NON-Summer flights… I try to fly in Non Air Rush hour flight times thus I am able to get the upgrades. The priority security lines are a joke now.. Even flying first class the over head bins are full before all first class has boarded. Now with the new United credit card with all the added perks.. the United Club is more crowded and much less of a perk. Several large firms are… Read more »
Sean
Guest

What carbon tax to asia? And are you seriously suggesting a 10.00 tax on refundable J tickets is really discouraging pax from choosing to fly? And certainly teleconferencing will substitute many routine meetings. But I doubt bonus perks which corparations pay for but whose employees receive could care less.

Bobber
Guest

Good call re: passenger loads – with the exception of one ‘ghost flight’ on a 20% occupied 777 in January, the other 13 flights I’ve made in the past 12 months have been completely rammed.

djbtravels
Member
It will be interesting to see when the airlines (Legacy carriers) go to a “price model” for elite status rather than miles flown. More miles = more $ paid for the seat. This would really change the landscape and I think that will be the next change we see in the future. I believe VX has that model currently. As for the UA debate I realized in March of 2012 United could careless if I flew them or not , being a elite in some form or another for 15 straight years was not good enough. Now a Silver I… Read more »
abefroman329
Guest

“It will be interesting to see when the airlines (Legacy carriers) go to a ?price model? for elite status rather than miles flown. More miles = more $ paid for the seat.”

They’ve been doing that for years – full-fare Y fares get a bonus, deep discounted tix get a fraction of the actual miles flown. And considering the uproar when UA eliminated the 500-mile minimum a few years ago, I think that’s as far as they’ll go.

Lewis
Guest
I’m saddened by the United merger with Continental. Continental always seemed more consumer friendly. That said – with the downturn in the economy – I might not make gold this year. I don’t think too much about silver benefits. You have to be at least gold to get, what I think, is the minimum perks. I used to be platinum on Continental on the dark days, late in 2001, I was always upgraded. Last year I was platinum and hardly ever got upgraded. So I don’t expect upgrades anymore. They are pleasant surprises now. I think airlines need not to… Read more »
Oliver
Guest

> why fly UA if all is equal

Because VX only flies to a handful or locations? ;)

David M
Guest

I think the reactions are the same as people have to airlines charging fees for things that used to be free. People don’t like it when you take away something from them. It’s easier to add perks to the highest tiers (and add fees for things that you didn’t offer before) than it is to take away perks for those at the lower tiers. But in this case, just adding perks for high tiers doesn’t solve the problems United created for themselves by offering so much to the lower tiers for so long.

asad
Guest

It must be pure torture for the marketing guy at United. It’s pretty clear United doesn’t care much about its brand since none of the other carriers are better.

At some point someone like southwest will add international flights (maybe virgin will add more routes) and those silver customers will switch if for no other reason than out of spite. I wonder what % of the airlines revenue comes from the over-entitled silver class compared to the 1k elites and if United will miss them.

Andrew
Guest
From everything I read, it’s not the Silvers who are making the noise–it’s the 1K’s and Global Services members who are up in arms. By UA moving towards a system in which ticket price trumps status (in general) for the upgrade queue, a lot of 100,000 mile a year fliers are finding themselves not sitting in the pointy end of the airplane nearly as often as they’ve been used to (i.e. “entitled” to). The other “entitlement” issue is that legacy UA really seemed to coddle their elites, in terms of giving away miles or flight vouchers if the littlest thing… Read more »
Matt
Guest
I think any reaction by a Silver, Gold, or higher member should be based on the merit of the complaint or concern. I agree that it is relatively easy to attain silver status on any airline if you are a frequent traveler or infrequent if you fly internationally and as such loyalty should be rewarded as it is good for business in that it keeps people returning, almost like bait and switch. Bait and switch is referring to the fact that I have been flying continental since 1987, and fly very frequently between the United States and China during the… Read more »
Jesse
Guest

I actually find the partnership being done by most airlines to credit card company as a cheat thus I’m not always convinced whenever they either promote their cards for free flights or their airlines with the cards.

u600213
Guest

I just want to say that I must have been over-entitled as a1K too. Things Jeff thinks I’ll like and Rainey thought I was over-entitled to:

120 segments for 1K vs 100
No separate 1K agents when calling the 1K number
only 2 RPU’s at 75K miles vs previous 2 per quarter when 10K miles flown in quarter
Paper GPU’s for LH not good on P or Z fares for upgrade when last year they were
Premier Line at Airport vs. separate 1K line before

I could go on but

Nick
Guest

I think Andrew is correct, legacy UA rewarded loyalty, but it seems that the new UA expects Global Services level spend (+/- $50K per year) to get anything close to the same treatment 1K used to get. I guess they did the math and decided those spending less but still doing the miles weren’t as valuable as previously thought.

Lee
Member

Wow, I went from being a 1K to a Silver over the years. Silver really was nothing more than being given a card and the chance to upgrade if no other Premiers are on the plane AND the airport. You get used to that real fast. The only benefit was the Eco-Plus seating. So while you Gold’s and above are so happy to see the bottom feeders go away do not get so smug. Just as fast as the silver benefits were taken yours will be next. Especially if it will lead to higher profits.

Jon
Guest

You will find that lax-jfk 5 times will not in fact get you silver status. Nice try though.

Nick
Guest

Pretty much it will, expect at least one of the ten legs to be cancelled and get re-routed through SFO for a few hundred extra miles.

Mike Jacoubowsky
Guest
The article mistakenly makes the case that the drain on resources for seats, upgrades & other benefits has been caused by too-many elites. Yet the per-plane elite percentage is likely similar today to what it was 5 years ago. Nothing new here, with the exception of integrating CO planes that don’t yet have E+ (thus temporarily increasing competition for better seats). So why the fuss? The current fuss is because the “new” United is working hard to sell benefits that formerly accrued only to elites on a per-flight a-la-carte basis. E+ seating, low-priced upgrades to first class on domestic flights,… Read more »
sbruich
Member
I think one of the concerns that you’re hearing from 1k’s is simply whether this is the start of a long line of benefit reductions. One particularly interesting situation I’ve noted is that the new United offers very low cost upgrades to business class, even when there are waitlisted elites who have used upgrade vouchers (eg confirmed regional upgrades or systemwides). On a recent ps flight to NYC from SFO, I saw that elites were waitlisted, but they were selling immediate upgrades for $200 bucks. That’s a surprisingly low figure to accept for business class, given that coach was about… Read more »
Bill
Guest
from a purely business perspective it seems it is better to get $200 for a seat then give it away from free. loyalty isnt as important anymore – domestic carriers have consolidated and there are just a few to choose from. you can make your elites mad – some may go to AA or DL – but you are going to get some back. sure you can switch to Virgin, but it will only get you to a handful of cities. people will fly whatever airline gets them where they are going. i think UA has decided that they can… Read more »
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SteveInChicago
Guest
I’m a gold level on United and have been for years, and every year, I have hit it by flying over 60 flights with them. Very little of the hassle with flying happens in the air – it all happens on the ground with delayed flights, cancellations and the occasional cranky employee. (I’m calling out gate agents, ticketing agents and customer service here — I have never once, in 20+ years of flying, encountered a cranky flight attendant or pilot.) Do I feel entitled? Of course I do! I don’t travel for the perks, but the lack of them definitely… Read more »
Yoyo
Guest
The fact is United has cut down everyone’s benefits. They are pretending to be a full service “legacy” carrier but running the show like a no frills discount carrier. I would venture to say that getting one of the so-called courtesy upgrades is all but impossible unless the flight is oversold and they need to bump passengers to allow more passengers in. A few weeks ago I was on a paid First Class seat and the seat next door remained empty until after they boarded the standby passengers, which is when a lucky soul was upgraded. Forget those phony “windows”… Read more »
Carmen Gutierrez
Guest

“…calling someone [names] makes it sound like you?re pushing the blame on to [them], like it?s somehow that person?s fault.”

Thank you for recognizing Victim Blaming when you see it.
http://www.ted.com/talks/jackson_katz_violence_against_women_it_s_a_men_s_issue.html

Hopefully you are a strong promoter of teaching others that we are all humans and thus worthy of respect. That our differences are what make us valuable and if we listened to each other, we could use what we learned to make this world better.

These are my goals as a feminist (read: equality for all), but sadly feminists get such a bad rap!

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