United Really Doesn’t Care

I fly United. They have been very good to me.

But it became very clear last night that United Mileage Plus really doesn’t get it.

At the post-Freddie Awards reception, I stood next to a very frequent traveler from Texas (> 220,000 miles flown last year and a top-level elite with both United and American) talking to Robert Sahadevan of Mileage Plus.

She told him that the changes to United’s top-level elite program were chasing her away. No longer are United’s “Systemwide Upgrades” (certificates given to 100,000 mile flyers that can confirm international upgrades at the time of booking) good on any fare. That means that if she chooses to give United her high revenue business fares, she is not able to upgrade her lower priced personal trips — and so she’d rather give all of her money to American Airlines where she can still upgrade internationally.

Their response? If that’s a better decision for you, you should fly American. United wasn’t interested in building their loyalty program to attract her business, because apparently she just wasn’t spending enough with them on each ticket to matter.

(Sahadevan’s colleague was much more thoughtful, and asked whether restoring the ability of Systemwide Upgrades to their old rules but awarding them based on revenue rather than including them in the elite packet made sense. An interesting thought.)

With United in Chapter 11 they can ill-afford to lose customers — especially customers giving them tens of thousands of dollars of revenue each year.

Robert Sahadevan made one very telling comment. He said that for too long flyers have gotten more value out of the airline than their revenue was worth.

Now, that’s certainly a common view in the industry. USAirways attempted to only allow elite status for flyers on the highest fares, but backed off. Delta moved to a more revenue-based model — but at the same time cutting benefits for the people who do qualify under the new model, thus spawning a customer backlash.

I’m really starting to wonder what the future of elite benefits are going to be. Sahadevan described the upgrades and bonuses received by 100,000 mile flyers who haven’t paid high fares as “an inefficiency in the system.”

Is this view the future, or just a reflection of United’s own anti-customer mentality? Only time will tell.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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