Changes So Far and Open Questions in the United-Continental Merger

In what I believe is the last story at the Chicago Tribune for Julie Johnsson, one of the really good aviation reporters (she’s changing industries and headed to Bloomberg), she covers the United-Continental rebranding and changing boarding procedures: United has moved to Continental’s boarding by row (back to front) rather than by zone (where window gets zone 2, middle 3, aisle 4). It’s the little things that frequent flyers notice and that mess with their routines.

Though I argue that most of the non-aesthetic changes happening as part of the merger have been quite positive, in contrast to how I felt about Delta-Northwest.

“It’s pretty jarring to see the globe on the tail. I do think there would have been a massive mutiny if they got rid of ‘ Rhapsody in Blue.’ For me, (the theme music) is United,” said Gary Leff, co-founder of, a website aimed at frequent fliers. “But most of the changes have been good. … Really, they haven’t made people unhappy, which doesn’t mean they won’t.”

Although the rule of thumb in predicting how the carriers will integrate? Get familiar with Continental’s practices.

“Any time you merge two carriers, you’re going to change to one or the other,” Leff said. “And in almost every instance, the change has been to Continental. People who are very, very frequent fliers will notice.”

Still to come, the future of international first class and benefits accruing at million-miler status.

What’s the big change or open question for the United-Continental merger that’s most important to you?

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. Agreed. The changes so far have been fairly minor and amount simply to slightly different ways of doing things. The big ones (now that Economy Plus is staying) are going to concern two areas.

    First, general on board service levels in the various cabins – I’m quite optimistic here that things will improve for UA flyers.

    Second, the benefits accruing to frequent flyers. It seems to me that UA is currently on the generous side of the industry and I think that quite a few of the benefits (which I enjoy as a UA 1K flyer) will be eroded. Here I’m thinking of upgrades, treatment when things go awry etc. I’m sure that the changes will be subtle but there will be so many of them that, for any individual, they are likely to collectively amount to quite a big deal.

    For me personally, these are the two key areas I value above anything else: the chance to upgrade some of my flights in advance on a confirmed basis (think flying with family) and the peace of mind that comes from being very well looked after when things have gone wrong.

    As a more minor point, in about 3 years I will have flown 1 million miles on United: currently the benefits of having done that are quite good – I would be disappointed if they went to Continental’s level.

    The danger for the new airline in all of this is that there are competitors out there and often the decision to go with United rather than, say, American is marginal. Once invested with United it’s easier to stay. But change too many things and the equation changes and people will jump ship. Quite a juggling act they must perform.

  2. The open question that’s most important to me is the what the credit card for the combined frequent flyer program will look like, since I get most of my miles from credit card spending. Will the United or Continental card survive, or will there be a new card?

  3. Yep, highest priority for me at the moment is maintenance of the United level of 1MM flyer status. If UA goes simply crazy and makes any dramatic NEGATIVE changes to that (and that would include bringing CO 1MM to the same level and essentially over supplying the base) I will just break down and weep.

  4. Biggest is will the new merger bring back it’s checking account relationship with Chase Bank…? Probably not. But I still SADLY miss my 50k CO miles annually from that sweet deal.

  5. As a leisure traveler, all I care about is the award availability without having to empty out my entire stash of FF miles. I could care less about the sequence they board in, or what they paint on their tail, or what they do to the 1 MM program. Give me FC travel for a reasonable number of FF miles and I am yours.

  6. Gary, what have you heard about the status of Hawaii with respect to unlimited domestic upgrades for elites? United upgrades elites to/from Hawaii, Continental does not except to LA.

  7. What’s happening with Million Miler? The change to issuing Systemwides when you get to 100k flown miles means 3MM flyers won’t get any unless they fly the 100k in a year. What’s the point of 3MM then?

  8. I’m trying to get to 1MM on United this year. If they reduce 1MM to lifetime silver (2P), I expect they will grandfather current 1MMilers at Gold (1P). I’m surprised they haven’t made an announcement on the future MM quals/benefits.

  9. The biggest question for me is whether they will keep a “frequent flier” program or will they gut it and create a purely revenue based program like Southwest.

  10. The only thing left at United is the name. Everything else about this new merged airline is Continental.

  11. I disagree on the changes being positive and in particular the 120 segments for 1K. I am a segment guy and pay high $ per mile and they have dissed me. Doesn’t SMI J know that jarring globe on the tail revolves around me?

  12. @Batavian
    Totally correct. It is total BS what they are doing.
    Red Carpet Club -> United Club Why take an original and well known name and replace it with such a generic name?
    Red Carpet -> blue carpet It is so stupid to do this, everything else in the branding is blue, so they need something to differentiate the Premiers from the rest, which is why the red carpet was so nice at United.
    1K, Premier Exec, Premier -> Premier Access From what I have heard, all the elites are now thrown into Premier Access so someone who spends $100K/year on UA ends up behind someone who spends $1,500. This improves service for low level elites and decreases it for the most loyal fliers. Stupid.

  13. I don’t fly enough anymore for business (I send my team instead), so my goal is to hit 30 segments a year to retain Premium.

    I generally book far enough in advance that I snare an E+ seat, and now boarding sequence has improved as well – which I can understand the elite movers & shakers would be upset about (if I understand correctly there now is no boarding sequence now in “Premier Access”, but a free for all?). Expect some pushing & shoving on the blue carpet!

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