United to Move to Unlimited Complimentary Elite Domestic Upgrades Second Quarter of 2010

Lucky beat me to the punch. United, under the signature of Robert Sahadevan who is Vice President for Mileage Plus, announced on Flyertalk that they will be moving to ‘unlimited complimentary domestic upgrades for elites’ beginning in the second quarter of next year.

United, along with American, has retained the 500-mile upgrade system where flying earns domestic upgrade certificates that can be redeemed for future travel. Since you had to fly 10,000 miles on United or United Express to earn 2,000 miles worth of upgrades, many heavily domestic flying elites found themselves either purchasing more 500-mile upgrades or sitting in coach some portion of the time.

American offers unlimited complimentary upgrades to their 100,000 mile flyers. United will now offer them to all elites, joining the majority of the industry.

This will mean several things.

First, Mileage Plus will be giving up some revenue from selling 500-mile certificates. Perhaps non-elites, or elite companions, will have to purchase these still.

Second, lower-tiered elites will have a much harder time upgrading. Currently 100,000 mile flyers sit in coach at times, perhaps they don’t want to burn all their 500 mile upgrades and have to pick and choose their upgrades. Now they’ll be seeking upgrades on every flights, every Premier will have to be behing every 1K and every Premier Executive every time.

Third, as Lucky points out, there’s no mention of confirmed regional upgrades in the message from United. They note complimentary domestic upgrades replacing 500 milers. And they mention systemwide upgrades. Now, perhaps it’s just an oversight. But currently 100,000 mile flyers earn up to 8 upgrades a year (aside from special promotions) valid domestically on any fare that can be confirmed at booking subject to upgrade inventory availability. Will those go away? We’ll have to wait until the broader announcement from United tomorrow to know for sure.

Fourth, it’s an open question what will happen to companion upgrades. Will those be complimentary as well? I’m assuming so, unless there’s a change to the companion upgrade benefit, since the note from United says there will be no more ‘requesting’ of upgrades — it will be automatic for elites. Perhaps you’d still have to request an upgrade for a non-elite companion. Or perhaps United’s brief announcement will have plenty of caveats, like you have to request the upgrade if you’re traveling with someone and you’re willing to pay for them. But I can’t imagine they have the IT capability, or will have it by second quarter of next year, to process an automatic elite upgrade for one person in a reservation and not process it for the second person. There will be an easy answer to this question, we’ll just have to see what the companion elite upgrade benefit is and how it’ll work in the new regime.

Count me as one of the people who liked the old way of doing things, although this is better for sure for the 100,000 mile flyer who does mostly domestic and finds themselves without enough 500-mile upgrade certificates to upgrade for free all the time. It will actually harm other 1Ks who have enough 500 milers (perhaps because they fly heavily internationally without too many opportunities to burn their 500 mile upgrades) and will certainly harm lower tier elites — they’ll all have to compete with every 1K on a domestic flight every time. And the fare of confrimed regionals will determine whether it’s good or bad for 1Ks on the whole.

But then I actually liked the paper 500 milers that used to never get collected when checking in at United Express stations. Those were the days!

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 InsideFlyer.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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  1. […] In a move no doubt related to its upcoming partnership with Continental, United Airlines announced on FlyerTalk.com today that they will begin offering unlimited complimentary upgrades to elite Mileage Plus members starting next year.  Members will no longer need to earn and burn electronic 500 mile upgrades, and requests for upgrades will be automatically entered.  This is a system similar to Continental, Delta and US Airways.  (Hat tips to One Mile at a Time and View from the Wing) […]


  1. I’m sure that a lot more will become clear tomorrow when all the details are released. That being said, I’m betting that the e500s and CR-1s are gone completely. Upgrades will either be SWUs, miles, or elite-based. Companions will be free at the gate.

    They’re moving to align with Continental. Nothing else makes sense. Continental has spent many, many years refining their system and now United is going to leverage that experience.

    RCC/PC reciprocity is coming at the end of the month and in the first half of 2010 upgrade reciprocity will happen. The new reward chart for CO virtually mirrors that of UA. It is a merger without all the mess of actually combining the companies.

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