United Airlines Changes To Upgrades: We Should Expect More

United Airlines had an announcement about the way top elite members earn and redeem upgrades this week.  I covered the full details yesterday when the news was released.  A high-level summary:

  • Premier Platinum, 1K and Global Services members now earn PlusPoints instead of RPUs and GPUs.
  • PlusPoints are more flexible, allowing members to upgrade in ways they couldn’t in the past.
  • It’s now possible to use PlusPoints to upgrade from Premium Plus to Business class.
  • United will also allow you to use PlusPoints to upgrade from discounted Economy class tickets to Business class, though at twice the price of an upgrade from W fare class tickets.

I also spent time talking with Zach Honig from the Points Guy about the changes.  You can hear our entire discussion on my podcast:

Zach noted on the podcast that he had looked hard for something negative amongst these changes (other than the slight increase in price on Copa upgrades).  Zach is generally a positive guy, so I think it’s telling he phrased it that way.  The trend lately for United Airlines has been painful changes like a move to more dynamic (and more expensive) award pricing. They did make a big deal out of removing the expiration date of our miles, which really was a non-issue.

I’ve had some time to consider the changes United announced yesterday.  I came away with two primary conclusions:

PlusPoints Dodges A Bullet

PlusPoints is undoubtedly more flexible than the previous system of RPUs and GPUs.  Frequently, business travelers would have to redeem these certificates for flights that weren’t “worth” a GPU.  That’s a win for elite travelers.  But, there’s a bigger win for road warriors.  With the roll-out of a true Premium Economy product on long-haul flights, there was a risk that we’d see a drastic change to these upgrades.

With a new “premium” class of service in between Economy and Business, there was a possibility that an RPU or GPU might only clear you to Premium Plus (United’s version of Premium Economy) as opposed to Business class.  That clearly would have been a big loss for road warriors.

Why would United do that, you say?  That would make frequent travelers mad.  The same could be said for the move to dynamic award pricing.  And, plenty of folks groused about the increase in spending requirements for elite status that rolled out last year.  Which leads me to my second point.

We Should Expect More

Make no mistake, PlusPoints appears to be a positive change.  United is not reducing the number of upgrades 1K members receive.  Generally speaking, they’re increasing the flexibility of Platinum and 1K members to redeem the new points for upgrades.

It’s important to look at the long view here.  Last year, United increased the spending requirement for 1K status from $12,000 to $15,000.  Any way you look at it, that’s a lot of dough.  That was a 25% increase in spending, or an additional $3,000.  Many of my fellow road warriors said enough was enough, that they wouldn’t be able to hit the new spending requirement.  Initially, I thought that they would find a way to stretch to $15,000.  As we enter the home stretch in 2019, I’m hearing from folks who are definitely not going to hit that level of spending.  That’s understandable.

For those of us who did increase our spending, United is seeing more business from us.  However, there’s been no increase in benefits.  Top-tier elites are making a stronger commitment to United while United is making it harder to redeem miles at affordable levels.

Upgrade inventory (currently the PZ fare bucket) seems to have decreased in availability.  1K members enjoy complimentary upgrades from coach tickets booked in M class as long as PZ is available.  The frequency that happens for me has greatly declined.  I hear the same notional reports from fellow road warriors.

United created PlusPoints as a new currency.  They control the only item we can redeem them for, upgrade inventory.  It’s telling to me that in the roll-out of this new program, United doesn’t increase the amount of upgrade opportunities a top-tier elite member has.  The belief is that top-tier elite members spending $15,000 or more per year will be okay with a small positive change.  Coupled with other negative changes the airline has rolled out recently, top elites are receiving less today while spending more.

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  1. I agree with what you’ve written, but I don’t think you’ve gone far enough. The downside will come in a year or so, when they start increasing the number of points required to ‘buy’ an upgrade.

    1. +1 This is just paving the way for future devaluations, which is much easier with the new system. When was the last time United did something purely to benefit the customer? Also, is United going to release more upgrade space or will things be the same or worse?

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