United’s 2004 Systemwide Upgrades

Yesterday I said that my take on United’s Mileage Plus changes for 2004 would depend on the terms and conditions of its Systemwide Upgrades (valid for upgrading international travel at time of booking, subject to availability).

United has sent an email to its membership, which among other things contains the details:

    In 2004, SWUs will be electronic rather than paper certificates, making them easier to track and bank for later use.

    2004 SWUs will be eligible in Region 1 from all booking classes except Z and G, and in Region 2 from all booking classes except Z, S, T, K, L and G.

First, the restrictions.

L and G restrictions really aren’t relevant, as those aren’t generally available fares. If I recall correctly, G is a travel industry fare on United.

The disappointment is really S and T fares, which were upgradeable with “Sweet Spot” upgrade certificates mailed to top level elites mid-year. Z fares are deeply discounted business class fares, only occasionally available, and which are usually very restrictive (high change fees, very significant advance purchase). These won’t be upgradeable to first class.

Nevertheless, the terms aren’t as restrictive as the certificates mailed at the beginning of last year, which limited upgading to “H fares and higher.”

The difference being that Q, W, and V fares are upgradeable — and those comprise the bulk of discounted international fares. So these seem like restrictions which won’t be dealbreakers — unless of course United begins calling all of its discounted fares S and T fares! Heh.

The other change is that Systemwide Upgrades will be electronic. As paper upgrades, they have been very easy to transfer. The certificates have always been completely transferable. Going electronic means a cumbersome procedure for a United elite to gift the certificate to someone else. Since United requires a procedure of verifying identity and signing over upgrades, a 100,000 mile flyer will have to make a trip to the airport and stand in line to authorize the upgrade transfer. And if my experience transfering electronic confirmed domestic upgrades is any guide, the agents usually get the transfer wrong — creating either confusing at the airport for the traveling passenger or the need for a second trip to the airport.

This change will cut down on the significant trade in certificates on Ebay for sure, but will create a cumbersome procedure for members. United really needs a way to automate the transfer process.

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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