Another Star Alliance Program is Launching — and Why That Means Fewer Benefits for United Members, and Opportunities for Everyone Else

Copa Airlines is launching their own frequent flyer program in July and will no longer be part of United’s MileagePlus.

Copa used to be majority-owned by Continental Airlines, and Copa took on a variant of the Continental logo and joined Onepass. Continental started selling their investment in 2005, and by 2006 was down to 10% ownership. The special relationship continued. Now the airline is grown up and moving forward on its own.

As a result, the airline will continue to offer United elites Star Alliance benefits but will not offer United elite members the unique benefits they’ve had as through Copa was an extension of United. But there’s also a big upside in this, a new Star Alliance frequent flyer program is coming — that has a chance to be really valuable for North American members.

Here’s What United Members Lose

Starting July 1, United’s elite members no longer:

  • Receive complimentary elite upgrades
  • Get instant upgrades on qualifying full fare tickets
  • Count Copa flying towards lifetime status or the minimum segment requirement for annual status

However, upgrades locked in with confirmed upgrade instruments prior to July 1 will still be valid. Use your upgrades before July 1, it’s fine to travel afterward.

In addition, Copa flights will earn miles based on distance and fare class – rather than ticket price – even when flying on a United-issued ticket. In other words, it won’t be a part of United’s revenue-based earning.

What We Can Expect Copa’s Program to Look Like

Copa, despite being a Star Alliance member, competes with Avianca. So I think we can look at the LifeMiles program for some clues of what to expect.

We can also look at major South American programs generally, like LATAM’s and Aerolineas Argentinas’.

The number one thing I’d bet on is that Copa will not add fuel surcharges to award tickets. Those aren’t common in the South American market.

That will mean that Copa will be a third program in the Star Alliance, in addition to MileagePlus and LifeMiles, that does not add substantial cash costs onto award tickets. That alone will make them interesting.

LAN’s chart is distance-based. LifeMiles is zone-based. Both are reasonable for many purposes (with premium cabin long haul getting expensive, though not as expensive as United’s). Hinckley has a history of running relatively generous programs as well. And both US Airways and Northwest ran aggressive promotions and acquisition programs.

That combines to suggest to me that this will be a program launch worth watching for North American members.

Genesis of COPA’s Separate Program: Roots in Several Successful US Offerings

I was asked at Frequent Traveler University in Chicago back in July for my predictions about what we’d see from frequent flyer programs in the future. One of my predictions was that we’d see a new Star Alliance frequent flyer program launch.

I shared that here back in August as well.

I’m actually betting that we see a new Star Alliance frequent flyer program in the next couple of years that offers full mileage-earning on United and doesn’t add fuel surcharges to award redemption. And I’m betting that happens without a new airline joining Star Alliance, even.

Russ Hinckley used to run Northwest Worldperks. He was out with the Delta-Northwest merger (I’ve occasionally wondered how much better Skymiles would be if he was given that portfolio). He landed at US Bank and launched their proprietary points program, originally aimed at retaining as many of their Northwest co-brand credit card customers as possible.

Fern Fernandez is Vice President of Marketing at American. At US Airways, he had responsibility over the Dividend Miles program. I believe he worked for Russ at Northwest, and then hired Russ on at US Airways. For a couple of years Russ was managing Dividend Miles under Fern.

Back in January I saw Fern and asked whether Russ would be coming along to American. He said no — but that Russ had landed a great gig. I learned that job was at CopaA — odd, since Copa didn’t even have a frequent flyer program. They just participated in United’s. Hiring Russ had to mean they’d be launching one of their own. I just wasn’t certain it would happen this quickly.

Copa’s been pretty clear that they don’t love the direction MileagePlus has been going. Now they’ve done something about it.

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, 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. Thanks, Gary. Any prospect for a Copa credit card with sign-up/initial spend bonus, as we’ve seen from a few foreign airlines (e.g., British Airways, Lufthansa, Korean)?

  2. Looking forward to seeing the new Copa program. My number one hope is that complimentary upgrades continue for Copa elite members. Even with just Premium Silver status, I’ve had great success getting upgrades on my Copa flights the last couple years. Next question is, will they offer the ability to transfer miles from MP to the new Copa program? If not, I’ll just burn my existing MP miles and start fresh with Copa.

  3. Gary, my comments dont reflect COPA Holdings, or my superiors or companywide opinions or statements.

    All tickets currently purchased from any venue are broken down with a fuel surcharge, future awards and tickets will also include a standard fuel surcharge.

    On tickets issued to depart the USA will have the regular taxes and fees.
    Average fuel surcharge of $160.00
    Average Taces of $105.00

    Departing Argentina will have a variety of fees including the 35% set up by AFIP.


  4. @ Gary – Although a new COPA program could be good, United strikes again. Mileageplus continues its devaluations per Lucky’s report yesterday. We would like your views on on further UAL cuts on PS Upgrade Copays, award ticket status and Global Entry fee waiver. To this former 1K the disregard by United of its top flyers is amazing. United only values transactional loyalty and has pretty bad soft and hard products that can’t compete with DAL. Whenever the airlines tailwinds finally subside United is going to feel the lack of loyalty from HVFs.

  5. Currently, Mileage Plus is COPA’s frequent flier plan. Will Mileage Plus members have the option of switching their miles to the COPA plan? Would it make sense to do so (since this plan will continue to earn distance-based miles)?

    This would be a great transfer partner for Citibank to add.

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