This year has been especially busy for me, both personally and professionally, so I haven’t had time to write at all. As of today, June 30, I have flown more than 100,000 miles on United – and some more on other airlines, but not much.
While I was away earlier this month, United announced more changes to its popular Mileage Plus frequent flyer program. I have been a member since the 80s when the program first launched. I was a child back then, but was still excited at the idea of becoming a member of an airline I loved. I accrued every single mile that I had flown, and a few years ago, I hit the 1 million mark on United, and now am at just over 1.7 million lifetime United miles. I’ve been a 1K (100,000 mile) flyer for quite a few years in a row. You can say as both a leisure and business traveler, I have stayed loyal to United.
United was known for its service in the early days of “The Friendly Skies”. I remembered the smiles of flight attendants as I boarded planes, and just getting wonderful service. So even as other airlines had upped their service, had more comfortable seats, personal entertainment systems, lie-flat seats, or even newer planes – I stayed with United. One of those reasons was the frequent flyer program.
In recent years, especially after the United-Continental merger, things have begun to change. One change that affected elite flyers is the change in boarding process. All elites, with exception to Global Services, are now “lumped” into Group 1. I am finding myself in a long line of folks trying to board these days, especially on full flights. The “Premier 1K” that is on my boarding pass no longer means anything at the airport.
Over the past few years, Mileage Plus has implemented several significant changes that has affected the program, as follows:
- March 3, 2012 – went to a four-tiered elite status, and reduced bonus miles earned by tier. 1K/GS were the only ones unaffected.
- January 1, 2014 – adds a Premier Qualifying Dollar requirement for 2015 elite qualifications. As a 1K, in addition to flying 100,000 miles on United, I will need to spend $10,000 on tickets, minus taxes.
- February 3, 2014 – Award redemptions have been devalued, especially on partner airlines.
Of course, the last draw came just earlier this month, when United announced that it will significantly reduce the number of miles you will earn when traveling on United. A 1K like me will get 11 miles per dollar spent, minus taxes – all of the elite bonuses will now go away. So a $650 ticket (minus taxes) spent for a 5,408 mile trip to Boston (obviously a pretty high fare) used to earn me 10,816 miles, now it will earn me 7,150. That is a 33.89% reduction. Supposed you paid only $300 for that same ticket, it will now earn me just 3,300 miles, which is a 69.49% reduction in miles. Don’t forget, this is the best-case scenario as I am a 1K.
This article by The Points Guy summed it all up pretty well – you’re definitely hosed. Oh yes, they did announce “new and exciting ways” to redeem your miles for free bags and Economy Plus seating (really?)… oh wait, that was a lame marketing spin. I really wouldn’t want to be in their Marketing/PR department right now.
So what does being a 1K really give you these days on United?
- 6 Global Upgrades – but you will need to buy at a higher fare for a chance at getting the upgrades. These days the chances are pretty low.
- No Fees for Changing Mileage Tickets – this is still a good one.
- More Award Availability – yes, another good one.
- Free Bags – seriously, many frequent flyers still do carry-on. not a great benefit.
- Economy Plus Seating – okay this is a good one.
That’s really it. You no longer get better chances at scoring an “unlimited upgrade” – as there is now a complicated set of rules on fare purchased and elite status – without any transparency – so you’re basically screwed. You no longer get priority boarding, because you are now standing in a long line of 1Ks, Premier Platinums and First/Business class passengers. It used to be that Global Services and 1Ks actually boarded before first and business class. Yes, I am biased because I earned the highest tier possible, minus the mysterious and complicated tier that is Global Services.
So what is really next for United? I really don’t know. When a program keeps changing its rules from year to year, it begins to lose passenger trust that the program will stay “as-is” for the foreseeable future. Because when we all sign-up for a program, that’s the expectation right? You wouldn’t sign up for a program that continues to devalue your benefits year after year, would you?
I did try to have a conversation on Twitter with @united. However, they can only give me the canned response of “We’ll still have the best award availability & Premier status qualifications won’t change”. Well, with less miles to redeem for awards, I am sure your availability will open up in the long term – then they will begin to cut availability to maintain a certain percentage as there will be less people redeeming down the road.
I am really hoping that another airline can step up and be different. I had hoped that airline would be American, but they don’t offer many routes to Asia, so that makes things a bit difficult for me. I am going to look at other airlines’ programs within Star Alliance and figure things out before December 31.