United Airlines Makes Elite Status Harder To Achieve, Less Rewarding For Their Best Customers

United Airlines made announcements today about how elite members will earn status in 2019 and how they’ll be rewarded when they do.  These changes mostly affect the top-tier Premier 1K members.  Let’s recap the changes and then I’ll throw in my two cents.

United Airlines Elite Status Qualification Changes

There are no changes in how elite members earn status in 2018.  Starting January 1, 2019 the qualifications for Premier 1K are changing.  Instead of a $12,000 spending requirement, loyalty members will need to spend $15,000 along with earning 100,000 Premier qualifying miles (PQMs).

Additionally, the Premier qualifying miles earned on discounted domestic first class fares (P-class fares) will drop from 200% to 150%.

United Airlines Elite Status Benefit Changes

Effective in 2019, United Airlines will no longer issue additional Regional Premier Upgrades (RPU) for 1K customers who earn 125,000 PQMs or more.  Instead, members will earn one additional Global Premier Upgrade (GPU)  at 125,000 and an additional one at 150,000.

United Airlines Elite Baggage Allowance Changes

Effective immediately, all elite members will have a baggage weight allowance of 70 lbs, where certain situations only merited a 50 lb weight limit on free checked bags.

The (First?) Final Two Pennies

I’m sure we’ll be revisiting this topic.  In fact, I’m working on getting one of my fellow bloggers who’s a United expert on my podcast to discuss this in more detail.

I’ve been a United 1K member for a handful of years now.  3 or 4?  Last year was the first year I wasn’t top-tier Executive Platinum status on American in more than a decade.  That’s generally meant spending at least $10,000 with one or both of these.  I’ve already spent $12,000 with United for 2018 and don’t think I’ll have a hard time hitting $15,000 in 2019 if my travel keeps up at the current pace.

That’s a lot of money to spend with one airline.  My complimentary upgrades clear less frequently than they used to.  And, the seats in the back aren’t nearly as comfortable as they used to be.  The new domestic first class seat isn’t the best design.

All that is meant to say that elite status isn’t quite as rewarding as it used to be.  Making it tougher to earn that status feels a bit like a thumb in the eye, though it’s not unexpected.  The airlines continue to try to thin the herd of top-tier elite members.  The spoken reason for this is to be able to more consistently deliver benefits to those members.

The reality is that it’s unlikely complimentary domestic upgrades for 1K members will get noticeably easier to snag.  Airlines like United have gotten much better at tweaking the prices of a first class upgrade (or outright purchase).  That means the front of the plane goes out full with paying customers much more often.  Yesterday I was offered an upgrade for less than $150 on my 2-hour flight home.  I’ve seen prices under $100 here and there for flights 2-3 hours in length.  Those prices only need to be appealing to a few folks to fill up the smaller cabins near the front of the plane.

But, What About The Upgrades?

On its face, the change at 125,000 miles from two RPUs to one Global Premier Upgrade sounds like it could be a positive one.  Or, maybe a net even proposition for some customers.  For me, it’s a loss.  GPUs come with this nifty feature on United that I refer to as “upgrade lottery”.  To redeem a GPU, you need to purchase more expensive economy class tickets (W class or higher).  However, upgrades are also capacity controlled.  That means you could get stuck paying a higher fare for your economy class ticket to score an upgrade….and then not score the upgrade.  Don’t worry, there’s no refund to a lower economy class fare when your upgrade doesn’t clear.

The Final Two Pennies

What’s the business case here? That United believes it can earn more money from their top customers?  I doubt that will be the case with me.  If I was at $12,000 in spending on a yearly basis, I’m not sure I’d find a way to give United an extra $3,000 for 1K status.  At least for me, United gets my business because they generally have the best times to the places I need to go.  Translation: they get me home to my family early.

Maybe I’m wrong and upgrade percentages for 1K members will go way up.  But, the airline that doesn’t want to abandon a mostly failed attempt at a price increase (Basic Economy) doesn’t seem to me to be likely to resit the urge to sell those seats in the front of the plane instead of giving them to elite members for free.

Moving the goal posts on spending without increasing the benefits associated with 1K status leaves me scratching my head a bit.

 

12 Comments

  1. “To redeem a GPU, you need to purchase more expensive economy class tickets (W class or higher).” CLARIFICATION: W class or higher *if on an international ticket*; otherwise, they can also be used on any non-Basic Economy (“N”) fare class, for example SFO-EWR. But that distinction aside, the likelihood of the GPU (or RPU) actually clearing these days is between slim and none.

  2. Almost every year that I made 1K I ended up giving away my GPUs to my blog readers because they were too hard to use. Who want to spend an extra $400 on an international fare for a chance to upgrade? And now UA sells the domestic upgrades so cheaply that there are few F seats left to upgrade into. These changes seem unlikely to change either of these two factors and upgrades will continue to be hard to get.

  3. Just a couple of years ago, I could search for “green dot” international flights that were available for Global Upgrades at booking. As a 1K with Global Upgrades, I could select a date or time of day to confidently use the upgrade, because it was instantly confirmed. Then over the past couple of years those green dots have all changed to yellow “waitlist only,” still requiring paying the higher W or greater price. I learned the hard way with a round trip ticket SFO-IAH-EZE (Buenos Aires) that looked great for upgrade space at the time of booking, but by departure time had filled up completely… and I spent 14 hours each way in economy on flights for a 3-day business trip (ouch). I run a small business so those “green dot” instant upgrades were great; we can’t afford to buy business class tickets. So bottom line, I’m tired of being punished for my 1K Million-Miler loyalty to UA. They find more and more opportunities to squeeze us while they rake in the cash. From Jan. 1 on, our new travel policy is to fly on whatever airline makes practical sense, with NO regard to loyalty programs. United and the others have effectively killed them off.

  4. And another thing! To RETROACTIVELY change their P fare qualifying miles from 200% to 150% miles flown is actually huge for two reasons: 1) I already have a couple of flights booked in P (low-cost international business) after the new year. Part of the justification for paying the premium was that I’d be earning PQMs toward 1K status next year. Now they are reversing that (and made 1K harder to achieve at the same time). And 2) Doing this retroactively is breach of contract! I am already paid and ticketed, based on the 200% PQM incentive. I filed a complaint but who knows if anyone at UA cares. Apparently it is against their policy! United has killed off decades of my loyalty. Maybe with the country obsessed with the Supreme Court hearings, they thought this was a good time to slip a jimmy into our drinks. But hopefully many of us are paying attention.

  5. United pulling a Marriott here just seems off somehow. Maye it’s just some personal quirk that I don’t understand intentionally pissing off your best customers.

  6. The value proposition is deminished for someone who travels internationally for business. I will be better off either buying the lowest cost fare if planning on traveling in economy and selecting an airline with the best option for an affordable biz class fare when they come up, that usually is not United. So they are taking my $12-16k that I would typically spend on UA and giving much of that to other airlines. I have had to go out of my way to meet the $12k hurdle on UA because of of there limited network overseas. This is a sad day, but might be simplifying.

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