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.
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.