United Puts A Dent In Elite Family Travel Benefits

I’m not one of those guys that believe an airline forms a binding contract with loyalty members.  I get that benefits will change over time and a big part of our “game” is finding the best way to leverage those benefits before they change.

But, the change that Mommy Points detailed last week really will hurt me when traveling with my family.  The change involves no longer being able to convey your elite status to people you book award tickets for unless you are traveling on the same reservation as them.  Official language of the change:

As of April 15, 2015, when traveling on an award ticket for United- and United Express®-operated flights, benefits including but not limited to complimentary Economy Plus seating, Premier priority travel services (such as Premier Access check-in and priority boarding), and checked baggage service charge waivers are determined by the traveler’s own Premier status, even if another member’s miles were used to purchase the award ticket. Customers traveling on the same reservation as a Premier member may receive the applicable companion benefits. Please visit the pages relating to specific Premier benefits for more information.

I’ll admit, when I first read this, I shrugged my shoulders.  Sure, it was nice to convey benefits to folks who I booked the occasional award ticket for as a gift.  But, those folks had no real expectation of baggage allowances and Economy Plus seating.

But, then I re-read Summer’s point about when she travels on a revenue ticket and her family is with her, but on a separate award reservation.

This is a bigger deal than just being a nice perk for the traveler because my family, like many others, will often use miles for the kid(s) and potentially the spouse, while purchasing a revenue ticket for the one who is chasing status in order to help that person re-qualify for elite status for the following year.

Uh, yeah.  This is totally what I try to do every time I travel.  Since I’m the only one in the family with elite benefits, paying for my ticket makes sense to keep me at home a bit more while maximizing the miles I earn for elite status.

Now, if I choose to book a revenue ticket separately, I won’t be able to request Economy Plus seating.  When you consider that it’s tough to get 4 people upgraded using regional upgrades on a United domestic flight and more pricey to book first class domestic awards (and, I don’t believe a way to use miles to book E+ seating), this means spending more money to travel the same way we used to as a family.

To be clear, I totally understand why United killed the benefit.  But, I do really think it’s another example of United not thinking the whole situation through.  Or, thinking the whole situation through and just not caring enough to make it easier for the customer.  Or, worst of all, seeing an opportunity to make a few more bucks off of their loyal customers.

I tend to think it was the first or second option above, likely not enough thought put into how these changes affect their members.  And, I don’t expect a change to this for the better.

I recall my friend Michael R saying a long time ago that he felt the ability to access E+ for his entire family when traveling on United was a great benefit.  I agreed then and still do now. But, with only two paths (all revenue tickets or all award tickets) to access this benefit going forward, it further chips away at the value of my elite status.

Which, given most of the recent developments at United, shouldn’t be a big surprise to me.

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  1. I appreciate that being able to seat their entire family in E+ without having to pay extra for them was a significant benefit for those MP elite members who travel with their family. But I’ve done an awful lot of travel where booking for last minute business travel, there are nothing but E- seats available. When you travel with a family of three and all of you are able to get E+ seating without incremental payment, for example, that may be up to four single business travelers whose personal elite status should qualify them for E+ seating if available, but no such seating is available. Ouch.

    1. I get that a business traveler might not get a seat in E+ because of the family. But, it’s also a published benefit. If I have a higher elite status than the single business traveler, then I should reasonably expect to get those seats, right? Someone with a higher elite status than me gets the seat before me.

      1. My point is that even a calculation to optimize the aggregate happiness of Mileage Plus elites on a flight might justify this decision. (Not that I really think that’s the primary motivation here on United’s part — I expect management is much more interested in optimizing their compensation than improving the aggregate happiness of Mileage Plus elites, and only occasionally will their actions happen to improve both.)

        Your being no longer able to seat you + 3 family members in E+ generates a certain level of unhappiness. To some extent, that encourages you to consider options other than United not only for your future family but also for your future solo travel. That also impacts your spouse’s decision making on airline selection; it might impact your children’s future decision making although probably fairly weakly. Leisure travel is often booked earlier, so you could have claimed those E+ seats before four other solo fliers on that flight who are booking relatively late. Those fliers could even have been higher elite status than you, and they would still have lost their E+ seating to you.

        But, each of those solo fliers would have felt some level of unhappiness, which varies from individual to individual. Some solo fliers don’t really care all that much about E+ vs. E-, but some do. (Similarly, some families don’t care all that much about E+ vs. E-.) That level of unhappiness could impact each of the four solo travelers’ selection of airlines in the future, not only for their future solo travel, but also their future family travel.

        It seems to me that the change in benefits — instead of one family of 4 getting four of a limited supply of the E+ seats, four solo fliers each get one of the same limited supply of E+ seats, and in each case their individual elite status reasonably led them to expect to get an E+ seat — might indeed do a better job of optimizing elite members’ aggregate happiness.

        1. I understand your point, but if I book myself on an award ticket, something I suspect most people would do, there’s no loss of benefit. Only those of us trying to give more money to United get damaged by this change.

  2. Just call premier desk and if you have same itinerary they will allow the people on separate reservations to get economy plus, I’ve done it several times before.

  3. I asked a United rep about this and supposedly – I’ll believe it when it happens – they are supposed to be able to do this manually. I asked about it since I’m in the same boat and the rep said, book the tickets online and then call in to manually move family to E+.

    1. Chris, that’s something you can do today under current rules, but like you, I won’t be holding my breath to see if it happens in April.

  4. People on seperate PNRs still get E+ seating, you just need to call the phone agent, or do it at the airport with a ticketing agent.

    1. Simon, I find very few flights that have multiple E+ seats available at the airport upon check-in. As to phone agents, it works that way now for separate PNRs but I don’t think we know whether it will come April, 2015.

  5. While other bloggers have posted about the loss of this perk, your post is the best. This change hits home and you expresses exactly why this is such a loss for elite members who took care of family members. It was actually something Continental did so we did get to enjoy this perk for a few years more. I fully agree with you that with all the United adjustments, this one stings most.

    1. Henry, I’m hopeful they’ll still allow agents to kludge it together after you book by calling in. I’m not optimistic. That would still be messy but at least there would be a solution. I don’t want to get penalized for wanting to buy my ticket versus using miles.

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