United makes radical change to bonus miles

United Airlines is in the process of merging with Continental, and they have been slowly rolling out the vision for what the combined airline will look like.  A critical piece of the “new” United will be its new loyalty program, a combination of features from the existing United Mileage Plus and Continental OnePass programs.

Today United announced the details of the new program, to be called MileagePlus (without a space between the words; isn’t that clever?)  Among the tweaks and changes was a bombshell: United will drastically reduce the amount of bonus miles earned by many of its elite members.

Some context: the large, “legacy” airlines’ frequent flier programs have some well-established benefits in common.  Each of these programs offers multiple levels of elite status to frequent fliers.  One of the most important benefits of elite status is that elites earn bonus miles on their flights.  Ranging from 25% to 100%, these miles have been a staple of elite membership for more than a decade.  The typical benefit chart currently looks something like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In other words, a middle tier elite (requiring 50,000 qualifying miles to achieve) would earn double miles on all her flights.  Compared to the 25% bonus given to lower tier members, this is a significant incentive for business travelers to concentrate their loyalty.  A middle tier elite who flies 70,000 miles each year would earn 140,000 miles from those flights.

When today’s changes go into effect next year, that same elite will earn 105,000 miles for her 70,000 flown.  Showing the same loyalty to United will penalize her to the tune of 35,000 miles.

Even members in United’s new third tier will earn only a 75% bonus, down from 100% in Continental’s OnePass program.

This change runs counter to the purpose of a loyalty program by removing a key incentive for that loyalty.  If United had announced a concurrent reduction in the miles needed for award tickets I could support this change.  But it didn’t; mileage redemption requirements continue to rise year after year.

While top-tier United elites like me are not affected, I will advocate for those loyal fliers who fly between 50,000 and 99,999 miles every year, whose bottoms in seat contribute significantly to United’s bottom line.  This change makes programs at AA, Delta and US Airways look very attractive by comparison.  I predict that United will be forced to roll this change back in the face of consumer outrage unless both AA and Delta follow suit.

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