United Introduces Elite Status for Anyone Who Wants to Buy It

Frequent Flier Programs, United

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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33 comments on “United Introduces Elite Status for Anyone Who Wants to Buy It

  1. I never flew enough to earn Elite status until last year when I had to make a dozen or so cross-country flights and ended up Silver Elite on NWA. I enjoyed the perks, and I found myself favoring flights with Delta/NWA even if the timing/route wasn’t as ideal as on a competitor. But as more airlines offer a subset of their elite benefits a la carte, I’m realizing what I *like* are the services, not so much the title of “elite.” If an airline lets me board first and select premium seats for a *reasonable* fee (while maintaining fare competitiveness), that pretty much negates the other puffery I may get from Delta as a “true” elite (the once-in-a-blue-moon first class upgrade, a “special” reservations number I’ll never call, etc.). Perhaps that’s United’s goal, to lure the “casual” elites? I’d be curious to know the distribution of hardcore elites (the 100,000+ flyers) versus those like me that stumble upon it by accident and fly just barely enough to maintain it. I wonder if the best revenue strategy for airline elite programs may be to eventually make it *harder* to become a true elite (start the cutoff at 50,000 or 75,000 miles), but open up the low-end perks to anyone willing to pay.

    Another thought: My girlfriend *hates* to fly — anything to make her experience more calm and comfortable when we fly together is a huge plus, and packaging a menu of benefits like this together pushes United back up on my list of airlines to consider. I think it’s a smart move, at least for the subset of the traveling public I represent.

  2. It’ll be interesting to see how this interacts with baggage fees. I note, for example, that checking two bags on United costs $40-50, depending on whether or not you pay the fees online or at the airport. For the DC-New York flight, if you have to check two bags, there’s almost no reason *not* to pay the $47 to upgrade and get your two bags free.

    On international flights, of course, this incentive disappears, as most international flights give you two free checked bags. Still, for domestic travel, this could be interesting…

  3. It’s kind of ironic, no? If everyone is Elite, then no one is. Back to the days when everyone was equal and the airline treated you nicely. As if.

    On the other hand, more money for United is theoretically better for Premiers, if it keeps the airline in business.

  4. Anyone remember the old days where you just bought a ticket and got on the plane? To much drama to fly these days.

    I get a kick over people who want to feel ‘special’ and board first. They aren’t going anywhere until the last person gets on the plane. And I’ve noticed the last person seems to always find a spot for their carry on.

    Now Mister Cranky two thing about what you wrote. First did you just toss this in or did UA really say “United also guarantees that all employees will be friendly and helpful”. So you mean the less money one pays the less friendly and helpful UA would be to you? It would seem no one at UA has the brain cells to understand you treat all your customers nicely and with respect. After all that is how you keep customers.

    Second….’But when I need I need to go to a city where only United flies,…’ “I need I need” over excited about what you need Mister Cranky, or just to early in the morning for you…….lol

    Love starting my day seeing what you have to say Brett, and I always try and guess what the topic might be.

  5. CF,

    Interesting move on United’s part.

    Last year, I bought my way into “semi-elite” status on DL by getting a Delta Reserve Amex. It wasn’t cheap ($450 annual fee), but I get priority boarding (get to stash my bag before everyone else) and access to SkyClubs.

    With SkyClub membership running a cool $495 for everyone else these days (and DL’s policy of free booze in the SkyClubs– combined with my Irish heritage and taste for suds), I figure it is worth it.

    I am flying US Airways at Thanksgiving this year, though, and did the same thing, incidentally. I just got a US Airways Premier World card for the perks alone.

    The US Airways card is less money than DL’s Reserve Amex ($79 per year)– and only a single pass to the US Airways Club where you have to BUY drinks)– but still worth the perks of priority boarding and check in.

    However, if Delta and US follow the United model, though, you can bet those credit cards will be cut up quickly. If I can buy ALL of these perks a la carte, it would certainly make those expensive cards less valuable to me– and presumably others.

    With that said, I am not sure that United is making the right move, either. Their secondary impact on their proprietary credit cards might be significant.

    Sure, many people get airline credit cards just for the miles, but I would argue that there are plenty who get them for the perks alone– just like me.

  6. Jim Huggins wrote:

    It’ll be interesting to see how this interacts with baggage fees. I note, for example, that checking two bags on United costs $40-50, depending on whether or not you pay the fees online or at the airport. For the DC-New York flight, if you have to check two bags, there’s almost no reason *not* to pay the $47 to upgrade and get your two bags free.

    True, but I think it’s probably pretty rare to find someone flying such a short flight with two checked bags. I’m guessing that’s what they’re banking on here.

    On international flights, of course, this incentive disappears, as most international flights give you two free checked bags.

    . . . for now! I’m sure everyone expects bag fees to reach the international world eventually.

    David SFeastbay wrote:

    First did you just toss this in or did UA really say “United also guarantees that all employees will be friendly and helpful”.

    That was most certainly a joke. They did not say that.

    Second….’But when I need I need to go to a city where only United flies,…’ “I need I need” over excited about what you need Mister Cranky, or just to early in the morning for you

    Clearly I should stop drinking so much in the morning . . . it’s fixed!

  7. I mostly fly United. One thing that’s becoming annoying is the pages and pages of upgrade offers placed after confirming your flights and paying.

    I should have taken a screen shot of them all, but I spent more time declining the offers than I did selecting the flights and seats. E+, first class upgrades, doubling miles for a price, car rentals and other offers for a dull two hour DEN-SNA flight. Now this will add even more.

    Not only that, but often the “radio buttons” are in different locations on each page – meaning you have use caution not to click “accept” versus “No Thanks.”

    (And I love how, like when declining a car wash at the gas pump, I’m forced to say No, THANKS. They’re putting polite words in my mouth when I’d like to say something else.

  8. Besides the Group 1 boarding and the special phone number to call, MP Prem level is pretty basic. Getting 2 bags for free is really the best Perm perk in my opinion. I fly out of SFO frequently and have never, ever been upgraded to First as there is always a *ton* of Prem Exec or 1K people ahead of me (especially on the hub-to-hub flights…no chance at all…).

    And now that anyone can essentially just buy this level I figure there will be even less of a chance of getting upgraded.

    So my goal is to reach Prem Exec before year end so at least I have a somewhat chance at an upgrade.

    If other airlines offered E+ I’d switch in hopes their programs were less watered down.

  9. I’m getting the impression more and more that the 25,000-mile elite level isn’t all that valuable to airlines, at least not nearly as valuable as it was when it was created in each program. The different ways you can reach that level within a year are, for example (and all in fully discounted economy), 2 round-trips between the West Coast US and Europe, one round-trip between the East Coast and Asia plus one trans-con round-trip, our 5 trans-continental round-trips. And even less if you happen to sign up for one of the status promotions that will have been going on for about 6 months out of the year…

    Although this is a bit more flying than an airline can count on from *every* passenger, it’s not a lot compared to people who fly across the country every week or across the Atlantic or Pacific 5+ times per year, and not a lot of money at all compared to people who book their flights at higher fare levels.

    I also get the impression that the ranks of elites at every level have gone down significantly this year. So with fewer loyal flyers, I can see why United and Southwest are trying to make money from benefits that are available anyway.

  10. As a UA 1k and former Premier), I think a lot of people are missing a point here – these bundled benefits do not come with an upgrade to first class. Premiers still accrue upgrade certificates (although their value might not be that great for a Premier out of SFO).

    Additionally, United offers Premier Associate status, which is a rung below Premier but offers the same advantages as the bundle (except for RCC access). Even if I were a Premier, I would not feel threatened by the bundle. Their value seems to be in the free baggage allowance. My 2 cents.

  11. Alex C wrote:

    also get the impression that the ranks of elites at every level have gone down significantly this year. So with fewer loyal flyers, I can see why United and Southwest are trying to make money from benefits that are available anyway

    I agree that the ranks of elites must be way down based on my own personal experience. When I was busy flying I often only got enough miles to bump into the lowest tier of elite status. Usually never more than 50k miles/year unless I did some personal traveling over an ocean.

    In the current economy my travel budget has been slashed and I have at best 5k miles in 2009. So, for people like me that have tasted the “elite” world yet have little hope of getting there anytime soon it might be a good idea.

    On the other hand the leisure traveler isn’t going to cough up that extra cash. Talking amongst friends most aren’t traveling because they can’t afford it because of either a) higher fares or b) reduction in personal income. My guess is this idea would work much better in a good economy, but then again, in a good economy I think their target market would already have elite status. Nice catch 22 from what I see.

  12. I look at it a bit differently, since UA is basically assigning a value to Premier membership on a flight, then someone could look at that and say that by earning Premier status they are saving that fee and thus create monetary value for status in the members mind.

    The only way I really see this as potentially causing UA elites to jump ship is if they sell too many of these causing elite benefits to become diluted, for example:

    – Elite member can’t reserve an E+ seat (or is stuck in a middle) because UA sold all of the good seats to non-elites. This would impact all levels of status.

    – Longer priority security or check in lines because so many people bought this option. Again could impact all levels of status.

    – More people boarding with zone 1 so people with status have to put their carry-on bag elsewhere.

    Otherwise, the rest is just ego, and for someone that is hub-locked or where the other options aren’t very attractive, they will likely stay with UA.

  13. I chuckled when I read THIS part of United’s Press Release:

    “Premier Travel is available for purchase only in limited quantities to ensure that the Premier experience is preserved.”

    I wonder what Limited Quantities is? As a ex-Yield Manager, I bet the answer is as long as e+ seats are still available.

    That being said, its still smart for UA — the true dedicated elite Business Flyer pool is getting smaller everyday thanks to the economy and things like Webex

  14. This UA stuff is all very sad. I’m a Premier Exec, lifetime UA million-mile flyer, paying for a Red Carpet membership, and paying for all my tickets, now, solely a leisure traveler.

    Does UA ever do anything sprecial for a partiuclar traveler, like me? “Haven’t seen you flying with us for awhile. Haven’t seen you in one of our clubs for awhile. Here’s something to get you traveling again.” A discount card, a free drink card, anything that addresses me, by name, or by my MP number, and doesn’t require me to read 10 pages of can’t do this, can’t do that, must do this, must do that Anthing to get me flying the Friendly Skies. Hello! Never!

    I live practically next door to IAD, UA’s hub. In the recent years, has UA ever put a fare or service ad in the Washington Post? Ever advertised in the local radio or TV market? Not that I’ve seen.

    No, just more stuff no one can understand or make sense of. As I said, very sad!

  15. I think this is a smart move on United’s part.

    So long as they limit the number of the packages sold, I don’t think it dilutes the value of Premier status to existing members – they still get the benefits of Economy Plus and free bags for free. On a full flight, which most are, United has to move people into Economy Plus seating anyway.

    This lets United get competitor elites to sample Economy Plus more easily, and make the decision to use United for a single flight more easily. And because United is the only domestic airline with an Economy Plus product, it is a move that competitors cannot match.

    In my travel experience Economy Plus is United’s strongest competitive advantage. The extra space makes every flight more comfortable.

  16. I agree with you Carl. This is smart and I think Premier still makes sense not just because of the free bags but especially because of access to Economy Plus. Economy Plus is for me the biggest perk of flying United on long hauls.

  17. JayB wrote:

    Does UA ever do anything sprecial for a partiuclar traveler, like me?

    Really interesting point; earlier this year, Delta sent me a very “nice” email that said, in effect, they noticed I wasn’t flying as often (once I was done making all those back and forth flights to the coast that earned me Elite status, I pretty much stopped flying other than leisure due to a job change) and were going to spot me 10,000 free Elite Qualifying Miles (!) in the hopes that’d encourage me to take a couple Delta/NWA flights before the year’s done to secure status for another year — it basically put me within 2500 miles of the 25K level, and does have me thinking of leisure trips to take on Delta, just to continue to have the elite option. So at least one airline is thinking the way you suggest about its elites.

  18. I dont think its a terrible idea my Premier Exec status went down to Premier this year and requalified already for next year a few months ago. My travel has gone down this year but I like even the Premier status this move by them does qualify the benefit of it as well. If I was buying a la carte or didnt have even the lowly Premier status it would be another $1000 dollars or more I would be paying every year to enjoy the same benefits. I also have in what appears to be different from the norm not had a huge problem getting uprades but do use my upgrade coupons and have bought the 4 pack two times now to pad it up a bit more.

    I would start to feel not to good about this if it begins to get really full or if the Premier section is sold out way in advance and potentially blocks me out of those seats. The line thing is confusing to me also because I am Premier but got blocked from using that at SFO recently even with my status and flying in on 1st Class but since my final leg to my home airport (SBA) dosent have the 1st class option on that segment and the guy said my Premier status wasnt enough. I had stepped out to get a smoke and upon re-entry neither my status or 1st class legs got me the line cut pass, is that only for the paying Premiers now?

  19. The questions I’d like answered are: 1. Who are these aimed at? and 2) Roughly how many people are buying all these extras, whether bundled or a la carte?

    Are the casual travellers actually buying any of these extras or are they limited to those of us “in the know”? When I think of casual traveller, I think of my sister who’s done 1 overseas trip a year (lucky uni students, 3 months break .. pfftt!) and when she makes a booking, she goes for cheap.

    OTOH, I did buy the E+ option for my upcoming red-eye SFO-IAD flight. Here’s hoping it was a worthwhile purchase! (I couldn’t get QF to put in the additional LAX-JFK segment without increasing the price so I’m flying through SFO instead and visiting friends there; on the way back I’ll get to do JFK-LAX with QF before picking-up the 380 to SYD the next day!)

  20. I’ve been a United Premier or higher every year since the mid-80’s. Now that I’m retired and travel only on my own dime, I have to do all my flying on United if I want to keep my basic Premier status. Unfortunately, like Jay B., I live very near IAD and thus much prefer to fly from there. Since United seldom matches cheap sale fares other airlines offer from IAD, I usually pay more than I would pay if I booked whichever airline had the cheapest seats. However, I continue to fly United because of Economy Plus. They are the only airline which offers that product, and it adds just enough to my comfort to make me willing to pay United’s prices and put up with their indifferent service in order to qualify to sit in an E+ seat. I get upgrades only about a third of the time or less, so E+ is very important to me.

    If this new product impacts my ability to get an E+ seat, I will be a very unhappy United Premier member. If they ever decide to do away with E+, I will certainly start flying whoever offers the cheapest seats. Since I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way, I hope they listen.

  21. Definitely a smart move by United to, as you mentioned, appeal to frequent travelers with other carriers who might want to purchase one-off elite status. As “industry watchers” however, it’s often important to remember that the majority of the flying public doesn’t think like us. While frequent travelers addicted to the drug of elite status might assume that there will be a rush of purchasers of United’s new product to rival a Soviet-era bread line, I think few “regular” fliers will take much interest.

  22. This is the closest to a United Love-in that I’ve ever witnessed on CF, and it’s amusing how terribly British and stoic we’re all being. Basically, it seems many of us chose (were forced to choose) United a while back, stuck with them, stuck with them some more because hell we’ve been with them a while and they’re sort of ok but not as good as some others but occasionally they treat us nicely, and we don’t want to admit that we might not be getting quite what we deserve.

    Ah, United Elites: suffering incremental benefits in service since the Blitz.

    ps I still book a 2-stopping UA flight to SFO from LHR over a direct one with VS (aka ASBO Air) or BA. That’s quite sad really, isn’t it?

  23. While this may be a smart idea, as usual United have implemented it with all the grace and charm of Milton Bradley talking to an umpire about a borderline strike.

    It is thrust upon you multiple times anytime you touch your reservation either on the web or at the airport kiosks . . . . and (very sneakily) the accept the additional fee button is on the right where you’d expect the continue (with what I have) button to be.

    The other thing that I think is pissing people off with United right now is the rows of empty “Premium” seats. I was on a UA flight yesterday (due simply to schedule and BTW I claim US Air miles) and the back of the plane is packed but there are 5 or 6 empty rows of ‘premium” seats between first and cattle class. The incredibly condescending attendant then comes on and in the most arrogant way possible basically says “we’ll let you sit there if you pay enough” – I realise he’s just doing his job but there are ways of presenting the option without making your customers feel like crap.

    Just reinforces why I spent my UA miles and now if I have to fly them collect miles on another airline.

  24. As a United flier without status, I like this move. One way they could make it even better –and maybe they already offer this–is to give us the option of paying with miles (for instance, make it 10k miles OR $158 from ORD-LHR). This way, people like me, who fly 20,000 miles on United each year (not quite enough for status) still have incentive to keep earning those MP miles. The “high level” non-status customers (if that’s even a fair term) will then, more often than not, have the option of paying with miles instead of actual $$$, which is always a plus, in my humble opinion.

  25. Don’t knock “lowly” premier status for getting on a flight at the last minute. Most pax on any given flight just buy the cheapest seat and don’t make any elite status. Even Premier status can get you ahead of many people who put their names down earlier for standby on a flight. You will appreciate this status if you arrive early for your flight for whatever reason and there is an earlier flight you would now like to take.

  26. I am one those who after being a Flight attendant (back in the day!) has had to re-enter the flying world. There are only two things that really matter when flying today…(three if you count swine flu). 1. Everything about getting on an aircraft ( I mean Everything! ) is no longer fun. I will do exactly what the Obama administration does and throw money at the problem. United knows this. An E+ is a prereq. 2. I want to get on the airplane before anyone else. United knows this

    So in the mean time as I literally climb over the bodies to reach the top of the MP heap, I will pay for the odds of possibly having a better flight. United knows this. I now can fully understand the relationship between crack and the addict.

  27. I have been flying United for the past 5 years. And this year I anticipated finally (not that I really care) flying 25,000 miles. But it would be a result of a final flight close to Xmas.
    Just got back from a long haul and have flown only 13,000 miles this year to date. Plus, let’s say 7,000 bonus EQM. All of a sudden I get an email from United telling me that based on REVENUE CONTRIBUTION, I have been awarded Premier status.
    I am told by an inside source at United that this can happen if they think you’re a big spender and want to encourage more flying.


    1. It’s certainly possible if you’ve spent a lot of money. They should be noticing this things, so it’s encouraging that they did in this case.

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