Translating United’s New MileagePlus Frequent Flier Program

Frequent Flier Programs, United

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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48 comments on “Translating United’s New MileagePlus Frequent Flier Program

  1. A lot of folks are missing how big a change there is for United 1Ks in actually getting upgraded.

    Instead of prioritizing upgrades based on status, then fare, regardless of what is being used to generate the upgrade (free upgrade, miles, upgrade certificates) the new method will put full (Y/B) fares first then upgrades supported by miles or certificates then free upgrades.

    That means a 25,000 mile flyer on a B fare trumps a 100,000 mile flyer on an H fare.

    And it means that a General Member on an S or T fare using miles trumps a 100,000 mile flyer on that same H fare wanting their complimentary upgrade.

    It’s a huge shift in the program away from rewarding loyalty towards rewarding the value of the indiviidual flight transaction.

    Upgrade prioritization is rather arcane, so a lot of folks don’t understand the implications, but it means that top level elites will no longer get their free upgrades as often as before. The General Member earning lots of miles on the United Visa now becomes a more important customer to upgrade when they offer up some of those miles. Big change.

    1. And how often do you expect a general member on an S or T fare to use miles (and have enough miles) to upgrade a flight? And if memory serves right, those upgrades also require a cash co-pay.

      1. Yes, cash co-pay for non-elites even on domestic upgrades.

        But quite often. It’s fewer miles than a domestic coach roundtrip award, so plenty have sufficient miles. S or T fares? All the time, but also H, M, Q, V, W, etc. Basically any fare mileage upgrade regardless of status trumps any elite using their complimentary elite upgrade benefits.

        Anyone with a United credit card, pretty much, will be looking to do this. And from the redemption data, that answer is – oh – around a million times a year…

        1. So there’s your mission, should you choose to accept it: educate the traveling non-elite public that upgrading with miles to domestic F is a waste of perfectly good miles that could be used for international premium class travel. Oh, wait, I don’t want to compete with them on THOSE flights. Never mind, let’em have the wonderful experience of domestic First Class travel with reheated scrambled eggs and Jimmy Dean mystery meat sausage for breakfast. :-)

    2. Gary,

      Taking your logic to the next step: Why should a loyal 100K+ traveler not get upgraded ahead of a no-status person who BOUGHT a first-class ticket? Or who redeemed a first-class award?

      1. Bingo.

        The airline industry’s problem (and the degradation of domestic F quality) is inexorably linked to the expectation that someone gets treated better on a $99 TPA-IAD-ORD-DEN-LAX-SFO-SEA mileage run fare than somebody else who’s willing to pay a lot more (and actually did), by virtue of the fact that the first person buy a LOT of those low-yielding fares. DL’s used fare basis to run their elite program for a while, and their universe hasn’t imploded.

        The more that class of service is coupled with the revenue derived from the people in that class of service (even if it’s transactional more than “we love you, college student 1K mileage runner!”), the more incentive UA has to improve the quality of their F (which they probably need to do to hang with the DLs and AAs). As an elite, I’d rather have the occasional ride in a really nice first like VX’s (either paying for it or getting the occasional comp upgrade), even if it meant more time in Y, than more frequent free mediocre F cabins. You get what you pay for.

    3. Gary – I’m going to be really interested to see if you think it’s a big deal once it goes into practice. I’ll be curious to see if it really has a big impact or not.

      1. Of course, this is all a theoretical discussion, as far as the masses (ie, we) are concerned. There is no real baseline, as far as we know, for how frequently lower elites on high fare classes are upgraded ahead of higher elites on low fare classes, or for non-elites buying up to F at the expense of elites (sorry, Premiers). So it could have a significant or negligible effect, but we’ll never really know and people will continue beating the drum in support of either position.

  2. I am one of those Premier Silvers impacted by the recent change, and losing Economy Plus seating is a deal breaker for me. They have taken my chance at upgrading away when they went to unlimited, and now they will stick me in the back of the bus. Not sure what percentage of their elite’s are silver, but I am guessing it is a big chunk. Maybe they don’t realize how significant our buying power might be with their new program.

    As they have been trying to sell my benefit package a la carte for two years, maybe we aren’t the ones taking all of the Economy Plus seats, maybe they are just selling to many customers into the Premier experience.

    Needless to say, AA will be happy to have some of my travel budget, and Virgin has leg room that matches Economy Plus for no premium.

    Adios to United

        1. Yeah I think E+ is 34” which makes all the difference.

          Also, why is Copa a partner but someone like Air Canada not? I understand if US Airways is not but Copa seems random now that CO doesn’t even own them anymore.

          Regarding the Amtrak comments below, I hope it stays but I think UA now wants it cancelled.

    1. Totally gutted with this news. Really fecked off about the E+ seating changes and suspect that it’s time to cash in the miles and move carrier. Unfortunately, since the bulk of my flying is to the US, my options within Star Alliance are pretty dire. So much for this wonderful influence that Continental was going to have – I’ve experienced jacksh1t of it so far.

    2. E+ if 34″ to 38″ depending upon the seat, and Virgin America has absolutely nothing like that. JetBlue? Yep. Standard is 34″ with 38″ for those who pay up. I can see JetBlue gaining from this change in some ways but honestly I bet that most people who say this will push them away will continue to fly United. If not, then we’ll know because United will reverse the decision.

      Sanjeev – COPA is a different story because OnePass IS its frequent flier program. It’s not a partner – that’s the program it uses. I assume that with these new rules, that means COPA will now use MileagePlus as its program.

  3. Maybe I missed it, but I saw no mention of bonus EQMs for higher fares. They say that there are “actual mileage” bonuses for higher fares, but it doesn’t explicitly say the bonus counts toward status (UA used to be very clear about specifying EQM earning bonuses.) Unless this is just due to ambiguous language, it sure would make it harder to reach status for many.

  4. I’m not an elite or even close to it, so those changes don’t bug me. But as a general member, I HATE that they’re taking last seat availability away from standard awards. That’s a huge selling point knowing you can always plop down 25k miles for a one-way no matter what the actual fare is. Not terribly surprising, but still a very frustrating change for general members.

    1. You can keep last seat availability by getting the United Explorer credit card. And as a general member your upgrades, supported by miles, will trump complimentary elite upgrades. So this is a real improvement in your benefits.

  5. Reshuffling of FF programs always cause issues, and for some reason I’m usually in the disproportionately affected group. I was ticked yesterday about it, but today… aww heck, I’m still miffed.

    The loss of E+ at check-in annoys me here much like a fruit fly, but it is nowhere near as annoying as the treatment I get as a last minute purchaser which is closer to the annoyance one experiences in a room full of screaming babies when you need to sleep.

    UA and DL are both at fault here. I buy a ticket 2 days before departure to fly DEN-ATL-ROA and pay $1800. For that what do I get? Back of the bus in the middle seat. Are you kidding me? Last year I bought DEN-YYZ on UA 36 hours before departure for a cool $3800 and guess where I was? If you guessed E- in the middle seat you are the winner. I would bet a good sum of money that my fare was higher than 75% of the fares of people sitting in first class. All this UDU drove me into miles agnosticism more than the plan changes at DL and UA, which were my primary airlines.

    I know it is a balancing act for the airlines, but there are a number of us that make last minute, high dollar purchases and the more I spend stuffed in the middle seat in the very back of the plane the less I care about the airline. I know AA is different, but their service from DEN has so far prevented me from using them. All I want from one of these FF plan revisions is for the airlines to care about people that walk up with a credit card and pay their high fares without batting an eyelash.

    Throw me a bone UA and DL!

        1. No…and didn’t realize it was a typo. There’s a lot of people who have misunderstood some of the changes and are misstating facts.

          I agree with you 100% on the issue with spend vs. program membership. I too, fly last minute and tend to buy rather expensive fares. Since I had a couple years off any major travel, I lost status, and while I worked my way back up I was in the same position. It never made sense to me that I was stuck in $hitty seats with my $2500+ fare to CLE, and some Silver who probably bought a $299 fare was sitting up front or at least in a nice aisle toward the front. It defies logic in any other business model.

  6. “””””unless you’re a Silver. Then you aren’t happy,”””””

    Who’s happy when flying anyway these days?

    My feeling is if you want to sit in a certain cabin/class then buy a seat there in the first place. No one should buy a lower cabin/class seat and assume they will be upgraded. Plan for the worst and hope for the best as the saying goes. It’s amazing how you see so many grown adults acting like babies at the counter if they are not upgraded.

    1. While boarding a DL flight recently a large Amazonian woman cut right in front of us and barked at the agent “Shouldn’t I board first? Wasn’t I upgraded?! My name was on the upgrade list! I’m a Silver Medallion!”. My wife, not knowing a thing about status turns to me and says “Silver Medallion?! I don’t care if she’s a [expletive] golden retriever!…”

      Wanted to renew my vows right there.

  7. I find it somewhat disappointing that they have not published a list of their redemption partners (or, at least, I haven’t been able to find it). One of the better low mileage redemption opportunities, in my opinion, is to transfer from Continental’s Onepass to Amtrak points and then redeem for first class sleeper service (e.g. 20,000 miles/points for a one-zone family bedroom for 4, a ticket that can easily sell for over $1000). It is quite obvious that the Amtrak connection is related to Continental’s code-sharing with Amtrak at Newark, and since that’s likely to continue, one might hope that the loyalty program partnership will transfer to the new MileagePlus. But they haven’t said anything about it, or for that matter about any of the redemption opportunities in the new program.

  8. Now the main thing I can’t figure out is if the quite little known but valuable for me partnership between Continental and Amtrak has ended.

    I don’t fly all that often but take the train a lot and you can currently transfer points between One Pass and Amtrak Guest Rewards at a one to one ratio (have to be in 5,000 point increments), although one AGR point seems to me much more valuable (its a two points per dollar spent program) than a OnePass Mile. (For example I can get a free ticket from Boston to Washington for only 3,000 points with few rules and exceptions just some holiday blackout dates).

  9. We’ve been United Premier for many years, flying domestically and to Europe and Asia. The prime advantage has been the seating in E+, while the priority boarding and baggage arrangements have been added inducements. Now, I don’t see any advantage of maintaining elite status at the silver level. If all things are now equal, we will just go for the best prices and schedules.

  10. UA , just told me, a 40,000 mile flyer on UA and partners that at that level I am not worth it, VX has a better product and future travel will be about schedule and cost of the fare. As a silver I lose E+ – deal breaker for me.

  11. Maybe UAL took some marketing tips from Netflix. Wonder if the fall-out will be the same as their Premier customers abandon ship to the best price fare, and abandon their FF program.

  12. I’m astounded that the feedback has been considered positive. The Premiers/Silvers are livid, as we should be.

    Personally I don’t care so much about the paper-based benefits’ changes (ie, mileage bonuses), although I’m not thrilled about them degrading. I DO care, however, and GREATLY, about the loss of benefits that made volume traveling possible, and volume travel on United, even if it meant higher fares, worth it. They already killed standby to align with Continental (which seems like a particularly glaring display of avarice — passengers are supposed to pay the airline for the privilege of helping them solve their operations problems???). And now they’ve taken away having a predictable decent seat.

    Yes, sometimes E+ is sold out for close-in bookings. That’s irked me too. But some routes are just popular, and it’s likely a by-product of United also individually selling those seats. If selling them so created a shortage that pissed off the really high volume frequent customers then United should have found a way to address it that didn’t alienate the lower volume but nonetheless incredibly loyal customers. Getting to 25,000 miles is not easy (yes, yes, 1-2 Asia flights would do it, but lots of us have other places to spend our travel dollar to go to that aren’t quite so far away) and requires a lot of flying. Having the benefits that made that travel be sane and predictable is a huge reason why many of us have gone out of our way to maintain our status and give United our past business, even when it meant higher fares.

    But now United would like to nickle-and-dime us further. Make us buy E+. Make us pay for stand-by. Make us pay for extra bags. They are looking to squeeze the golden goose of these loyal customers dry, and they will lose. When their competitors are cheaper, have better in-flight amenities, and lower fees (I can already check a bag for free on JetBlue without having any status!) the calculus in choosing whom to fly no longer works out in their favor.

    Especially when this change comes as an enormous slap in the face for everyone who was loyal to this airline for 25,000-49,999 miles per year, in many instances for many, many years, including those years when United was lucky to have any passengers at all.

    1. I disagree. I think hitting Silver is a pretty easy feat, as evidenced by the incredibly large pool of first tier elites at both carriers. Yes, they are loyal, but many of the first tiers I know are first tier because they’ve spread their flying among many carriers; they tend to hold first tier on one, two or even three carriers. UA is not completely removing the benefit, rather they are just diluting it a bit. To say first tier elites should be livid is a bit silly. If E+ is really that important and valuable…purchase it. Then you’re guaranteed to have an E+ seat for your flight, and if you get upgraded…well, not much to complain about.

      1. Most are missing the point. I’ve flown weekly intercontinental for the past 15 years. I’ve kept my mileage eggs in one basket from time to time but having to fly back of the bus on another carrier due to schedules or whatnot made it sensible to maintain tier 1 status on multiple carriers. This ensures that I get a premium seat and free baggage. That’s pretty much all there is to care about post 9/11. First class intercontinental travel is a joke and anyone who gets upset at missing their upgrade should find another line of work or at least take a step back and take a deep look at themselves.

        So the issue is that rather than being able to select an E+ seat at the time of purchase with tier 1 you now have to make tier 3, 75,000 miles to get that perk. So this should not only be irritating tier 1 members but tier 2 members as well.

        I for one who has been both 1k for many years and GS for a few have been kicked in the pants by United again and again and tried to stay loyal. Even to the point where I flew United out of Phoenix during their bankruptcy. This though is the final straw. I know I’ll have to fly United from time to time but I’m not going to give them any more business than I have to.

        Peace out.

  13. Elites at all levels seem to have taken hits of varying size.

    As a 1K, I see my comp upgrade success going down from “very high” to “high”. As has been noted, the Y/B and instruments trumping system is what has been in place at CO, and yet CO Plats still were getting comp upgrades, with the exception of perhaps a few notoriously tough routes (EWR-SFO/LAX, IAH-SFO, etc.)

    If low tier elites are flying on *that many* Y/B fares, they won’t stay low tier for long. And I see GMs using their miles for free tickets and not co-pay upgrades…

    And frankly, I like that when I choose to use an upgrade instrument it will now continue to give me priority for that upgrade through to the gate.

  14. Just caught up on this. I’m one of those Silver’s and while I’m happy with the rare first upgrade I highly value E+, early boarding, and the premiere security lines.

    So I guess this means we’ll have to check in exactly 24 hours in advance, aka Southwest style, to snatch up the best open E+ seats?

  15. As a Million Miler, the worst part of this change is the fact that they’re giving Gold status to spouses and significant others of Million Milers. Not only are the number of Gold members going to nearly double after the merger is completed, but NOW they’re going to give Gold status to spouses that rarely travel by themselves. When they do, I’ll be competing with them for Economy Plus seating and/or upgrades!

  16. It’s an interesting concept one that a lot can relate to but I’m not sure if United as you had pretty much discerned to us even has it in the bet interest of the consumer or themeselves will this backfir ein a 180 style. No idea but my buds at the martinee lounge or Gemini G Group may say otherwise. I got a hunch united may resciend it but for what more fliers mileage lol right? That’s the point in and of itsel fright!?

  17. Luckily for me, I only fly PS routes so as a premier losing E+ booking is no big deal. Losing the second checked bag is however a decent blow. Time to start seriously thinking about AA…

  18. Not sure if anybody is reading this thread anymore, but I had to contribute my $0.02 in the form of a long question.

    I’m going to make Premier (silver) for the first time this year, meaning that I will have status for calendar year 2012. I’m probably exactly the type of low-level elite for whom UA is trying to devalue status. When all is said and done, I will have flown roughly 40,000 UA miles this year, and another almost 20,000 on other carriers for various reasons, but primarily because of cost of leisure travel. Just under half of my travel is for business, and United is my company’s preferred carrier.

    I think that the word which best describes my feelings toward the revised MP program is “bummed” but not terribly shocked. What I wonder is whether they differentiate between the Silver who flew 25,000 miles and the Silver who flew 45,000 miles when it comes to the rare possibility of an upgrade.

    Specifically, my fiancee lives out of state in a city with very little business traffic from my home base of Chicago. F is rarely full on these flights, and I have never been turned down for an upgrade using miles as a general member. Under the old Premier, my sense is that I would have been upgraded for free fairly often on this route–one of those rare routes where low-level Premier was actually valuable. I wonder if this will still be the case, or if the addition of the CO elites, plus the odd MM spouse here and there will kill this small benefit as well. Will I–at 40,000 EQM in 2011–be automatically placed ahead of a 25,000 EQM Silver, or will F upgrades indeed be first come, first served as well? Will Silvers still be able to use the priority security lines? It seems as though UA Premier Silver is essentially mimicking Star Alliance Silver, which is all but worthless. However, I’m not sure if AA Gold is any better…

    1. I’m sure you can get exact details over on FlyerTalk, but my assumption is that the number of miles you have in your account won’t matter.

  19. These changes take me directly to AA. No looking back. Removing the E+ seat selection at booking for Premier (sorry, Silver) now deflates the value of United for me and most of the other members I’ve polled. The selection of flights, departure times, herding, and service simply don’t outweigh the extra inches. If you’re a 25k flyer they’ll be selling off your E+ seat to a non-status passenger for $40 and you’ll be sitting in a middle seat in row 30. Wish I hadn’t worked hard for 2012 status. If they’d had the guts to tell us earlier we all could have switched to another airline in March.

    1. Sadly, it is quite by design that they roll this out now instead of six months ago–because they are preying on people like us, who will go above and beyond to squeeze every single EQM we possibly can out of United (and paying a premium to do so) under what we now realize is the false promise of the bare minimum we should expect to receive as 25-49,000-mile customers: an Economy Plus seat and a couple of checked bags.

      I will be doing the AA Platinum challenge next year and will not suffer one instant of regret for switching loyalties.

      What’s truly sad is the fact that United is not only more than happy to lose us as customers, but in fact I am convinced that part of the new business model is to literally drive out existing lower level United elites in order to cater to the massive influx of mid-level CO elites that will continue their loyalty. It is nauseating, and we are literally being laughed at by United management. It’s a no-win.

  20. As a long time MP Premier/Silver, United has just given me the push I needed to move my transcon business over to VX. Even compared to the PS flights, VX offers a far superior product, competitive pricing and an overall better experience. Not to mention T2 at SFO. So long boarding cattle calls of battling elites. Enjoy your sub-par flight.

  21. These people are animals

    I always wanted to take a dump on this pop stand and leave it

    And now I can with good reason


  22. Hey Cranky,
    It was mentioned above, but I’m not sure if it was answered…is there a difference now in the way elite bous miles are earned. Did we used to get more EQM bonuses, making requalifying harder for those of us earning our status on mostly transatlantic C/D class?

  23. The fact that United now charges $100 for a second bag, even for a 1k, million mile flier, is more than enough, in my mind, to switch to AA, or to start flying an airline that offers real service even to fliers who have no status. The mileage plus program is supposed to be about loyalty. We’re loyal to UA, then they are supposed to be loyal to us in return. It used to work that way. UA seemed to understand that its elite members were the only asset it had that was saleable. But now UA is so pleased with itself that it can treat its elite members like crap, so long as it keeps telling us how wonderful it is. But loyalty has its limits, as UA will find out, to its cost

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