The most consumer-unfriendly change ever to a loyalty program has to be when LatinPass became GlobalPass and required people to re-earn the miles in their account with purchases through their shopping portal. But LatinPass hadn’t been attached to a single airline, it was a coalition program.
The most consumer-unfriendly change ever to an airline frequent flyer program wasn’t made by Delta. It was made by United, almost 30 years ago.
United’s livery of my youth. By Torsten Maiwald, GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons
In 1987 United Airlines Mileage Plus made changes to their award chart.
They increased the price of first class upgrades:
Previously, United awarded a first-class upgrade from coach class to anyone who had flown 10,000 miles on its flights. The upgrade was granted regardless of whether passengers purchased a full-fare coach ticket or a discounted ticket requiring an advance purchase. As of Jan. 1, passengers holding a discounted coach ticket will qualify for a first-class upgrade only if they have flown 30,000 miles. (Those passengers holding a full-fare coach ticket still can get a first-class upgrade for 10,000 miles.)
They also introduced class of service bonuses to ‘better reward their highest value customers’.
Big winners are passengers who pay full coach fare for their tickets, usually business travelers who can’t book 30 days in advance to qualify for sharp discounts. If you fly on a full-fare ticket with United after Jan. 1, you will have a 25 percent mileage bonus credited to your account. If you fly full-fare first class, the mileage bonus is 50 percent.
United sees these bonuses as a way to reward certain business travelers who may be paying twice as much or more for their seat as the vacation traveler sitting next to them.
For the first several years of the program, there were no capacity controls on award tickets. If you had the miles, you could fly. 50,000 miles was a free roundtrip ticket — in first class.
1987 brought a reduction in the price of a free ticket, from 50,000 miles down to 40,000… in coach.
But one change made in 1987 was absolutely ludicrous. United wanted to combat mileage brokers, so they restricted award redemptions to passengers with the same last name as the accountholder.
That meant if a husband and wife didn’t have the same last name, they couldn’t redeem for each other out of their accounts.
Some programs today restrict whom you can book an award for.
Korean Air SkyPass allows mileage redemption for Grandparents, parents, spouse, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, parents-in-law, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law. And you have to provide proof.
But United’s change went much farther than this. It meant that a woman who changed her last name when getting married could give awards to her husband’s family — but not to her own sister or parents. If she kept her name, but a sister changed hers the sister became ineligible to receive a Mileage Plus reward.
The policy didn’t last of course. In 1988 United made major changes to its program.
- The introduction of 500 mile minimum earning per flight. Up until this time it had been 1000 miles.
- Elimination of class of service bonuses for premium cabin travel
- Three year expiration of award certificates (they had certificates back then!) but those certificates became transferable to anyone.
1988 also brought the introduction of capacity controls and blackout dates. Up until then miles could be used for any seat.
Of course there weren’t nearly as many ways to earn miles then. The very first airline credit card didn’t launch until 1986, and the first hotel credit card didn’t launch until 1987.