A United Customer Learns of a Big Elite Status Mistake — After Spending Over $1 Million on Their Credit Card

A reader — and industry insider — copies me on a complaint to United Chairman and CEO Jeff Smisek.

Dear Mr. Smisek,

I am very dissatisfied with United Airlines Mileage Plus & its credit card partner, Chase, as I believe United has been unfaithful to the terms & conditions of the Chase Presidential Plus Credit Card, which I hold.

In 2012, I used a combination of Premier Qualifying Miles (PQM’s) earned from flying on United Airlines and PQM’s earned from my Chase Presidential Plus Credit Card to achieve United Airlines Premier Platinum Status (75,000 PQM’s earned in a calendar year). I earned 38,000 PQM’s from my Chase credit card, as this card rewards its holders with 1,000 PQM’s for each $5,000 in spend on the card. The rest of my PQM’s were earned from flying.

After achieving Premier Platinum Status, I then flew 27,284 miles on United Airlines to have a total of 102,284 PQM’s in 2012, which I believe should entitle me to Premier 1K Status.

Except that changes to the card were announced in July 2011. At the time it was stated that elite qualifying miles earned from spending on the Continental Presidential Plus Mastercard could not be used towards status above Platinum (75,000 qualifying miles).

The idea was that Continental had a 75,000 mile status level as top tier. You could earn that with spending on this credit card. And you would still be able to.

But United had a 100,000 mile status level, and the combined airline would as well. That new, higher level wouldn’t be something you could achieve through spend on this card.

The author of this email acknowledges this.

I was informed by the MileagePlus Service Center that I do not qualify for Premier 1K Status, as PQM’s earned by the United Mileage Plus Credit Card only count towards Platinum Status. The Terms & Conditions for the United MileagePlus Credit Card do state:

    “Flex PQM can only be converted into PQM for attaining levels, up to and including Premier Platinum status only, that are explained and defined in the Premier Qualification Requirements section of united.com, and as such may be amended from time to time with or without notice.”

However, these terms do not state that PQM’s earned from the United Mileage Plus Credit Card can not be combined with miles flown on United Airlines to obtain Premier 1K Status.

The author of the email and I disagree on what United’s terms and conditions mean. To him, he should be able to earn Platinum with credit card qualifying miles, and then earn more miles towards 1K status (with the credit card status miles counting).

But I read the terms and conditions clearly stating that you cannot use credit card qualifying miles towards a status level higher than Platinum. Which is also how United sees it, and what they intend.

The only thing is, though? United’s IT is bad. Very bad. Everywhere and for virtually everything that they do.

And so credit card-sourced elite qualifying miles show up on a member’s elite qualifying mileage total when they log into their United account. And it combines with miles from other sources such that their mileage balance reflects over 100,000 elite qualifying miles, only they haven’t earned the 1K status that normally comes from 100,000 miles flown.

And though this change has been made, it didn’t quite penetrate the understanding of someone who organizes conferences year-round for the loyalty industry. I don’t feel a lot of sympathy for him but it does tell me that if he didn’t realize the change then it’s likely United and Chase didn’t do enough to make cardholders aware that they could no longer earn top tier elite status by putting heavy spend on this card.

Further, one wonders whether they even had an incentive to make cardholders aware, since folks continuing to think they would get this benefit would induce them towards higher and higher spend on the co-branded card that they might not make otherwise.

Indeed, this correspondent indicates they put over $1 million per year (conferences) on their card that they wouldn’t have otherwise, and no longer intend to do.

Given that it’s no longer possible to earn top tier elite status through credit card spend alone or predominantly with United, what should this person consider?

  • This is hotel spend. Consider putting the spending on a card that’s going to bonus this spend more than the United Visa. Chase Sapphire Preferred gives 2 points per dollar that are transferrable to United for hotel spend. It does so outside the U.S., too, with no foreign currency conversion fees. Spend at Starwood properties on the Starwood Amex generates two points per dollar. The Citi Hilton Reserve Visa provided 10 Hilton HHonors points per dollar on Hilton spend..
  • This is meeting spend. Starwood and Marriott both will let meeting planners earn top tier elite status based on meeting spend (Marriott awarding nights towards status with each meeting, Starwood awarding Platinum after $100,000 spend). Top tier hotel status, entirely apart from the credit card spend.
  • Hilton awards top tier status after $40,000 spend in a year on the American Express Hilton Surpass card and the Citi Hilton Reserve card.
  • You can spend your way to top tier status with Delta still.

With a million dollars in hotel spending available to divide up, and no ability to earn top tier status with United through such spend, there’s a whole lot of other status I might focus on instead.

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  1. Seems like something I would have checked with at the MileagePlus desk before putting a million dollars on a credit card. There have been numerous blog posts and threads on FT and MP about this question. Maybe the IT is bad, but enough people have figured it out.

  2. In 2011, credit card elite qualifying miles were allowed up to platinum level. Then actual seat time miles must be accrued to achieve 1 k status. Sometime this past year, 2012, United changed their rules without notifying their elite flyers. At least I was never notified. Deceitful!!

  3. I suspect this guy knew this and just wants an exception. Plat status is great for someone who fly’s less than 50K miles. If United makes an exception for him they will have to make other exceptions and will devalue 1K even more than it already has.

  4. Gary, I calculate only $190k spend on the card per the facts you have disclosed here (he earned 38k PQM from spend on teh card which earns 1k PQM per $5k spend, ie $190k spend earns $38k). Per these facts he’d have earned over 200k PQM if he spent over $1mm on the card.

  5. I am in the same exact situation, and was not aware of the change.. i never received any notifications from either chase or united.

    I am only 20K miles short for premium1k, all the rest were flown and i am at 106K miles.. it’s a complete failure on United part imho, since the balance for premium 1k clearly showed mileage that was redeemed from FPQM

  6. Yeah, I thought this particular change to the Presidential Plus card was dumb for exactly the reason we’re seeing here. But this question was asked and answered, and lots of people made their flying and spending decisions based on a correct understanding of this (I certainly did, switching from 1K with a Pres Plus to a happy EXP with an AmEx Plat :-) so I don’t see how it would be fair for them to make an exception for someone who complains loudly.

    In other status-related mistakes, a buddy of mine managed to end 2012 without earning any status at all, because he moved to Canada, kept accruing to UA (to what he thought would be 2P), but didn’t know about or satisfy the minimum UA metal requirement. I’ve got him working on getting *A status through A3 now.

  7. I seriously doubt many people outside the frequent flyer community understand this distinction or are even aware of it. I do and as a result put absolutely no spend on my Pres Plus card except for car rentals, where the insurance coverage is primary. I certainly think UA and Chase need to clean this card up a bit as it is something of a mess in its present form.

  8. Bottom line is that this credit card spender is just a 25,000 mile flyer.

    I mean, it’s really not hard to fly 75,000 or even 100,000 miles in one year. Why should UA make an exception for a customer that barely reaches the bottom level of spending.

    With a million dollars spending, they should realize that highest status tiers are for FLYERS not buyers.

    Besides, Plat is still pretty good.

    I fail to see the problem here.

  9. @HikerT I’m not so sure, buying vanilla reloads to get top tier status takes less money and effort than putting butt in seat and doing the miles.

  10. I fail to see the utility of the threat to pull any spending on the card. UA presumably doesn’t have some great desire to give away qualifying points.

    Maybe the best response for the exec. level support team is a status challenge to see if he’ll actually fly?

  11. Perhaps a few too many narcotics in an earlier phase of life has addled his brain more than he realizes.

  12. I think the CC should be restricted to 5K PQMs. It is ridiculous that someone could be a Platinum without spending a dime with UA. Especially, most people use business expenses to rack up some serious “spending” on a card.

    Flex PQMs should only serve as some kind of boost [5-10K tops] to help a high spender reach the next level, but should not serve as a source to attain status IMO. The ability to earn 75K PQMs via CC is way too much.

  13. The terms and conditions are quite poorly drafted. There are much better ways to say the same thing. For example, “Flex PQM cannot be converted or combined to attain 1K status.” Wow, that was easy!

  14. I am the consumer in question here. I actually spent just shy of $500K on this card in 2012. I spent $1 million on it in the last 3 years. And I flew 64,000 miles on paid tickets on United in 2012, not 25,000 miles as someone said. I had so many miles that I was on United metal more than 100K miles, but much of the travel was using miles. Now it’s a holiday period and I have time on my hands to read your blog. But the vast majority of the time, I am so busy with work that I don’t have time to worry about the rules of United Airlines. Both the status bar of United.com and multiple people in MileagePlus told me that I was on the way to Premier 1K. So, I believed them and thought I was following the rules. United’s own Mileage Plus staff didn’t know the answer here, so why would I? I have the same issue with credit card shopping. I simply have a hard time finding the time to worry about the best card for each type of my spend. It takes time that I don’t have. Thanks for your advice on cards that could benefit me. Much appreciated! The Sapphire Preferred (which is my personal card already) and the Hilton Amex would work well.

  15. To be 100% accurate, I must revise my last statement. I just looked through my travels from last year. I am actually probably shy on United of flying 100K in 2012, including mileage tickets. I certainly flew much more than 100K in total with various airlines, but I bought a half a dozen tickets on non-Star carriers and I had miles with other airlines that I used for mileage tickets on those carriers. The long story short is that I could have flown 100K on United, but I didn’t because I thought I was following the rules to get to Premier 1K, reinforced by Premier 1K agents and Mileage Plus Service Center staff’s communication with me, as well as the status bar on United.com, which showed me obtaining Premier 1K. When I booked my last ticket of the year, the agent made a point of telling me that I would be Premier 1K when I finished the trip. For me, none of this makes any business sense. Any customer who holds a $375 annual fee card and can spend tens of thousands on it (which would be all affected customers here) is high potential value for the airline. So, it would make better business sense to me for United to handle this better and not drive away affluent customers. So far, United’s response has been to fight these customers and offer nothing. I am not saying what United should do, but just that they should make some effort to make these customers feel appreciated. As it stands, on top of not getting Premier 1K, affected customers are losing the burnt Flex PQM’s which have now been used needlessly (and could have been used for 2013.) On top of this, I used an upgrade on a friend, assuming I was getting six more upgrades for 2013. And, I already started purchasing my 2013 tickets (aprrox. $2,500 in spend so far for 2013 travels) that I would not have booked on UA if I had not been told I was Premier 1K multiple times.

  16. I am not going into the details which would be a very long post, but I too was mislead by United on a status match. Basically, I was promised in writing a certain status match if I attained certain goals, which I did. When it came time to honor the match, UA said it was incorrect. In retrospect, I am sure they were correct on the rules, but I honored my side of the deal, they wouldn’t.

    I now have a bad taste for UA and since I am lifetime platinum on AA and live in Chicago, I will now be almost exclusively flying AA. They lost a good customer.

  17. At these levels of spend, the guy should just buy a couple full-fare international tickets and buy up to Global Services. He’ll be better off than us lowly 1Ks, and it’ll be cheaper too!

    I mean, I feel for him a bit… I made an extra push to reach 55k EQP on AA to requalify for the ExecPlat match, but just found that I missed the fine print that bonus EQP don’t count (like the end-of-year double EQP promotion), so I’m expecting to be only Plat on AA (which isn’t enough to make me fly them more). I’m not going to write a letter about it, though.

  18. Also, does this change effect the old MileagePlus Platinum Class card? As far as I can tell I still earn up to 10k EQM with that, and it does not seem to be restricted against 1K. For some years (not this one, though) that’s been the extra bump I’ve needed to retain 1K.

  19. To add to Joe F’s comments. United makes a lot of money on its co-brand cards. It gets paid, probably over a penny per mile, by Chase for each mile that consumers earn from card spend. There are different ways to structure the co-brand deals, such as the bank paying the airline per mile and both parties splitting fees, etc. But, this is big business. Chase saved United in its last bankruptcy by giving it hundreds of millions of Dollars (I think the published figure was 600 or 700 Million Dollars, but might likely be more than the published figure.) Chase’s Card portfolio with United made the airline worth saving for Chase. So, these cards are important revenue sources for airlines and banks and keeping lucrative cardholders happy is part of being a profitable airline in the USA. US legacy carriers basically make almost all of their profit in two areas – the co-brand card/loyalty program (#1 profit center) and baggage fees. And banks make more money from airline co-brands than other cards. Most card consumers are not the educated ones who read this blog. Average card consumers spend more on airline cards vs others, as they like to feel rich in miles, even if other cards offer more valuable rewards.

  20. @Jered — at least before the merger you could get Global Services with a 50k PassPlus investment (not advertised). But the individual in question is doing the spend all as reimburseable business expense…

  21. @Jered, Yes the old UA Platinum Class Visa still earns up to 10K eqm & you can turn up to 50k RDM earned through CC spend into 5K PQM all of which count for 1K.

  22. Although I am sure this is frustrating, it is another example of the ridiculously lousy job United and Continental have done combining their companies. At every turn, my experience with the two airlines has been difficult, confusing and frustrating. I stopped flying them both and prefer Delta, American and Southwest. On another note, this is a first world problem . . . with all due respect.

  23. Just FYI, I experienced the exact same issue with this card for 2012. Both United & Chase were intentionally not clearly stating the revised rules. I even called Mileage Plus multiple times during the fall to see if the miles were counting towards my 1K status. First of all the agents themselves couldn’t understand the rules and had to check with their supervisors. I was then told yes the points would count. At the end of the year I ended up being several thousand miles short. After a call to the Mileage Plus service center they agreed to allow me a one time allowance of 10,000 miles to count towards 1K status. I noticed all of a sudden they were incredibly familiar with the new rules. It was so obvious they were receiving thousands of complaints that they were forced into allowing the 10,000 miles to count towards 1K status. Basically my Presidential Plus card is worthless. I can get 10,000 1K qualifying miles from my other United card so what’s the point of the Presidential Card other than the United Club. It disappoints me that United & Chase had to be underhanded in the way they dealt with this. Why would they go from unlimited 1K qualifying points to zero 1K points? At least provide an opportunity for something.

  24. Same issue here
    status bar on United.com says I had reached 1K status in July 2012 and so I did not worry and took flights on other airlines. Even qualifications page does not show fine print. Customer service sent me an image that only when you transfer PQM there is a pop up stating the limits to only Premier Platinum
    How DECEIVING
    On purpose maybe and a change from initial enrollment
    Website needs fixing and so does the communication – very disappointed like others as I could have charged with other cards where I benefited after reaching Premier

  25. Over this issue, I cancelled my Presidential Plus credit card and got an American Express Platinum Card. And I also took a Turkish Airlines 2-year status match to keep United Club Lounge Access if needed, but don’t plan to fly United much. In my case, one month after I complained about this, they offered me this week a “Premier 1K Challenge” to fly 35,000 miles by end of April. However, I had already booked too much travel on other airlines, because of this issue, to consider such a challenge. Goodbye United.

  26. It’s certainly United’s decision if they wanted to change the rules but they were so blatantly changed to be deceptive. I called the Mileage Plus service center a minimum of 4 times this past fall and nobody there understood the new rules either. I was always told they would count towards 1K until the end of the year when it was obvious they had received so many complaints that all of a sudden knew the rules by heart. If they really wanted card members to clearly understand the new rules they would have made them crystal clear. Instead they opted to make them confusing and ambiguous. I stopped using my Presidential Plus card since it’s basically useless if you want to maintain 1K status by earning PQM’s. I have another Chase United card that still allows me to earn up to 10K worth of qualifying miles for 1K status so I am now using that card instead. Why they still allow that card to earn the 1K status and not the Presidential Plus card is a mystery to me. They should at least allow you to earn up to 10K 1K qualifying miles when you use the Presidential Plus card.

  27. You are paying a $375 fee for that card. You can take a status match with Turkish and get the lounge access, get that $375 annual fee back and not reward financially United and Chase for poor business practices. I had the exact same experience. I was told repeatedly that I was Premier 1K until mid-December and then all of a sudden every agent knew the rules and was towing the line against the customer. Before that, the United staff didn’t know what was going on, so why would customers? Why would I not believe United Staff and the status bar on united.com which said I was Premier 1k? The “new United” is a worst case merger scenario- losing tons of money and providing terrible service. This credit card mess is just one example of many. Most of the executives running it were at CO during its bankruptcy- one of the most successful examples of leaving Chapter 11 of any company in any industry. Coming out of CO’s Chapter 11, they built a company that had good staff and that provided, what I thought, was great service. I am not talking about a loyalty program, but happy staff throughout the organization that put customers first. Now these same executives are not managing the “New United” very well. And all staff seems to be demoralized, including the staff that is ex-CO and was happy before. I am taking my business elsewhere.

  28. At the end of the year I was only about 5K miles short and United agreed to give me the 5K qualifying miles for my 2013 1K status. You need to go directly to a supervisor. They know they have angered so many of their top tier members they are making allowances to give them 1K status if they’re within around 10K from obtaining it. Otherwise email Jeff Smisek directly don’t send in letters!

  29. I did write to Jeff Smisek and no dice. I was 36,000 miles from 100K. I thought I had made it. It was hard to keep track of how many miles I flew because I flew on United on paid tickets, I flew on United on the many miles I earned from the credit card (almost all of which were double hotel miles and I spent nearly $500K) and I flew other carriers. I was relying on their staff and IT telling me I was Premier 1K. They came back to me this week, one month later, offering a Challenge to fly 35K miles by the end of April, but I already booked on other carriers. What did they expect me to do? I travel for work. And I was angry with United, so I booked elsewhere. What type of company responds to customer service complaints after one month? No wonder they are losing money.

  30. Jeff Smisek’s goal is to eliminate anyone from earning 1K status by using credit card miles. He only wants revenue to count. They are only going to make things more difficult. I can understand their goal since they need more revenue but being deceptive isn’t a good way to accomplish it. I believe you be upfront and honest with your customers regardless of how difficult it may be. Being sneaky and deceptive only makes things worse.

  31. United Mileage Plus is the largest profit center in United Airlines. And, within Mileage Plus the lion’s share – over 1 Billion USD – comes from the Chase co-branded credit card relationship. Everytime we get a mile from spending on our cards, Chase is paying United over 1 penny, adding up to over 1 Billion Dollars a year for United. And the United brand only exists because of Chase. When the “Old United” was in Chapter 11, Chase pre-bought hundreds of millions of Dollars of miles to keep United Airlines out of liquidation. So, the brand name itself of “United Airlines” only exists because of its Chase co-branded credit card relationship! So, if United were chasing revenue (which its doing a poor job of right now as it is losing a lot of money!), it would take care of elite co-brand card holders who spend a lot of money on their cards….

  32. Boo-hoo-hoo to you Chris. I have the Presidential Plus card and when they changed the terms they were clearly stated. There was no confusion. Furthermore, you’re crying over this after you’re spending, not your money, but your company’s money to earn free perks! Shame on you, I bet your company would like to know about this. Bet they’d like it even more if you were putting all this spending on a card that benefited them and not you.

  33. I am one of the owners of the company and used the miles for work. It was all above board, open and honest in terms of the business- which United was not. The Status Bar on United.com and United’s Staff indicated to me that I had obtained Premier 1K. Since that time, United has fixed this glitch and can tell which PQMs are earned from flying and which are earned from the creidt card, which UA could not do last year until it became an issue in December. Anyway, I moved on and am flying American and holding an Amex.

  34. Chris – 100% agree. This merger was a fiasco. $mi$ek should be fired. This clown not only took a GREAT product (CO) and merged it with arguably the worst service-worst culture and worst attitude airline in the US, but then with the swipe of a hand, shafted the Presidential Plus card members killing bennies such as spend-qualifying for miles. I too had the IT bar telling me i was way past “1K” – alas, no dice. Sure, the “heavy duty card” is cool, and gets loads of comments – BUT what is the poin of the $400.00 if you do not get the benefit of the qualifying miles? Doesn’t really matter though, when you are 44TH on the upgrade list. 10 years loyalty to CO down the tubes. I’m 22K miles form “lifetime gold” – what is the point of THAT? I made 1K in 2013, 44th on the upgrade list? $mi$ek is a clown. I throw up a little in my mouth every time i see his video pre-flight. I’ve switched to American. I hope they avoid these merger fiascos with the US Air deal is complete.

  35. Yes, Smisek has done a lousy job. He pulled a real fast one with the Presidential Plus card. I don’t even use the card anymore since it’s basically useless. The only reason why I still have it is for the United Club since it’s really a wash to keep the card or buy a membership at the United Club. Where is the wifi he has been promising for more than 2 years? They’ve outfitted a few planes while the rest of the industry even budget carriers has wifi on their planes. It’s lame management. Also, if you really want to get frustrated try calling the 1K desk or Mileage Plus service center with a question after 5 CST when their phone switch to people in the Philippines. They are some of the poorest trained call center people I have ever dealt with.

  36. Chris,

    I had the same problem. Cancelled the card – was spending $25-50K on it per year. I am completely disappointed in how United handled this. It was all in the fine print.

    I too wrote an email to Smisek. I received a form email from their “handlers”. I doubt he ever received my email.

    The new airline has destroyed the Continental side of the airline. Even the Continental employees in the new airline agree. I know many of them.

    Shame on you, Smisek.

    I wonder how many high dollar people they lost here?

    I am using AMEX platinum now. United is not my preferred airline.

  37. I am using Amex Platinum too. The customer service is better than Chase. I got cards for my wife, mom and dad. All four of us had our Global Entry applications paid for and I got the $200 in airline fees reimbursed. So, that is $600 back on a $500 card. And this week they added the benefit that Centurion Airport Lounge visits are free of charge for Platinum Card holders. (And with my 100,000 bonus Amex Points that came with the card I redeemed BOS-DUB in Business Class on AerLingus for just 50,000 Avios points- just half my signup bonus on the card! And I have also been dumping the Amex Reward Points into Avios for shorthaul redemptions in the USA on AA and in Europe on BA which are dirt cheap in cash and points. I mean DIRT CHEAP.)

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  40. Holly is obviously not a business traveller. Some companies indeed force their employees to use company provided cards that direct bill to the company and the company indeed gets any of those benefits. But the vast majority of us have to use our own credit cards and our own money to front the expenses which are then reimbursed via submitting expense reports. The perks of using the best rewards cards helps balance out the insanity of being away from our families and countless hours wasted dealing with travel nightmares. So boo hoo to you too Holly.

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