One of the knocks on United’s loyalty strategies over the years has been that the airline just takes what Delta does and slaps its own name on the change. When it comes to qualifying for elite status, however, United has decided to be the first mover. The airline announced on Friday that it is simplifying elite qualifying metrics and better matching them up with what people pay starting with travel in 2020 for 2021 status. Though it is simplifying the process, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to learn. There are now two new metrics replacing the three old ones, and as always, there are asterisks that make understanding them difficult.
Before we can talk about what United is going to do, I need to back up and explain how it works today along with the problems behind that method.
2019: PQMs, PQSs, and PQDs
Up until the last few years, United let people qualify based on either the number of miles they flew (called Premier Qualifying Miles, or PQMs, in the current language) or the number of flights they took (called Premier Qualifying Segments, or PQSs, in the current language). This opened up the ability for people to do mileage runs. Short by 10,000 points? Just study fare rules and find a cheap ticket at the end of the year. This became a cottage industry that spawned all sorts of websites and strategies to help re-qualify.
The airlines tried to solve the problem of people not spending much to get status by giving bonuses to those who bought expensive tickets. But even that wasn’t enough for United when it followed Delta by introducing the Premier Qualifying Dollar, or PQD. This added a minimum spend requirement to being able to qualify for elite status. Those last minute mileage runs became much tougher to do unless you had already spent a ton of money and just needed more miles.
In other words, United kept piling on requirements on top of requirements to try to jury-rig a system that would reward those it wanted to reward. This led to mass confusion with multiple ways to qualify.
For 2019 travel and spend qualifying for 2020 status, this is how United has things set up:
You either need to earn a certain number of qualifying miles or you need to fly a certain number of flights (both adjusted for high or low fares) in addition to meeting the minimum spend. But what counts as a PQM, a PQS, or a PQD? I won’t bother getting into it, because this system dies at the end of this year.
2020: Hello PQFs, and PQPs
Starting for 2020 travel qualifying for 2021 status, United is introducing only two metrics for qualifying, the Premier Qualifying Flight (PQF) and the Premier Qualifying Point (PQP).
The PQF will replace PQS. What’s the difference? There is no longer any bonus for buying an expensive ticket. One takeoff and landing = one PQF*. That’s easy, oh, except for that asterisk. *Basic Economy earns nothing.
The PQP is a little more complex. This replaces the PQD, and you continue to earn one PQD for each dollar you spend on airfare (excluding tax) on United-issued tickets and paid seating options. But now, you also earn PQPs for the following:
- paid upgrades (online, at the gate, etc)
- co-pays on upgrade awards
- Star Alliance operated flights on non-United (016) issued tickets
It’s that last one that’s likely to make the biggest difference going forward for most people. Today, if you buy a ticket on a Star Alliance partner, you get no PQDs. PQPs will take those into account, and that can add up quickly.
This is where complexity creeps back into the system. United still doesn’t know how much money you spent on those non-United tickets, so it will take the number of regular redeemable award miles you earn and divide by 5 for flights operated by so-called “preferred partners” which are Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Avianca, Azul, Copa, and Lufthansa Group* airlines. For all other Star partners, you’ll divide by 6. Details are here.
There’s that nasty asterisk again. For Lufthansa Group, it’s really Lufthansa, Swiss, Brussels, Austrian, and… Eurowings. For some reason, Edelweiss and Air Dolomiti are left out. [Updated 10/17: United tells me that Edelweiss and Air Dolomiti will be moved to the same rate as other Lufthansa Group airlines before 2020.] And why is Air China a preferred partner? Maybe United had to suck up to the Chinese for labeling Taipei as being part of Taiwan at some point. But I digress.
The end result is that you can now earn status in two ways. Here’s the chart:
As you can see, the biggest change is that PQMs disappear entirely. It now doesn’t matter at all how far you fly. Effectively, United is saying there are two ways to earn status. You either fly a lot or you spend a lot.
- Fly a Lot: If you fly a certain number of flights and spend an average of $334 on each flight, then you will qualify. If you fly more than the required number of flights, then the amount you’d have to spend on average drops, because… math.
- Spend a Lot: If you buy expensive tickets, you can qualify just by taking 4 United flights the entire year. You just have to hit those dollar amounts in the chart above to qualify.
This is actually a good way to handle this, because it deals with the issue of value. If you fly the airline a lot, even if it’s on shorter flights in coach, you can still qualify as long as you have at least some moderately-priced tickets (or a couple of really expensive ones in addition to cheapies). On the other hand, if you don’t fly a lot, but you buy very expensive tickets, United will still reward you with status. Miles really don’t matter in a world where you have spend and number of flights.
While the increased simplicity is nice, whether you like it or not depends upon what this does to your individual ability to earn status and nothing else. When I spoke with Luc Bondar, VP of Loyalty for United, he said “in broad terms, this will grow the total Premier population.” But he then said it will “rebalance” things. I take that to mean that there will be more elite members, but it will skew more toward the lower tiers.
Of course, this doesn’t apply until 2020 travel for 2021 qualification, so it’s not in effect yet. Travelers will probably be crunching numbers to figure out how they need to change their behavior. At least the new calculations should be simpler than they are today.