The Dumbest Frequent Flyer Restriction in History

The most consumer-unfriendly change ever to a loyalty program has to be when LatinPass became GlobalPass and required people to re-earn the miles in their account with purchases through their shopping portal. But LatinPass hadn’t been attached to a single airline, it was a coalition program.

The most consumer-unfriendly change ever to an airline frequent flyer program wasn’t made by Delta. It was made by United, almost 30 years ago.

United’s livery of my youth. By Torsten Maiwald, GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1987 United Airlines Mileage Plus made changes to their award chart.

They increased the price of first class upgrades:

Previously, United awarded a first-class upgrade from coach class to anyone who had flown 10,000 miles on its flights. The upgrade was granted regardless of whether passengers purchased a full-fare coach ticket or a discounted ticket requiring an advance purchase. As of Jan. 1, passengers holding a discounted coach ticket will qualify for a first-class upgrade only if they have flown 30,000 miles. (Those passengers holding a full-fare coach ticket still can get a first-class upgrade for 10,000 miles.)

They also introduced class of service bonuses to ‘better reward their highest value customers’.

Big winners are passengers who pay full coach fare for their tickets, usually business travelers who can’t book 30 days in advance to qualify for sharp discounts. If you fly on a full-fare ticket with United after Jan. 1, you will have a 25 percent mileage bonus credited to your account. If you fly full-fare first class, the mileage bonus is 50 percent.

United sees these bonuses as a way to reward certain business travelers who may be paying twice as much or more for their seat as the vacation traveler sitting next to them.

For the first several years of the program, there were no capacity controls on award tickets. If you had the miles, you could fly. 50,000 miles was a free roundtrip ticket — in first class.

1987 brought a reduction in the price of a free ticket, from 50,000 miles down to 40,000… in coach.

But one change made in 1987 was absolutely ludicrous. United wanted to combat mileage brokers, so they restricted award redemptions to passengers with the same last name as the accountholder.

That meant if a husband and wife didn’t have the same last name, they couldn’t redeem for each other out of their accounts.

Here’s Pittsburgh Press coverage from the time:

Some programs today restrict whom you can book an award for.

Korean Air SkyPass allows mileage redemption for Grandparents, parents, spouse, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, parents-in-law, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law. And you have to provide proof.

ANA places limits on whom you can redeem your miles for.

But United’s change went much farther than this. It meant that a woman who changed her last name when getting married could give awards to her husband’s family — but not to her own sister or parents. If she kept her name, but a sister changed hers the sister became ineligible to receive a Mileage Plus reward.

The policy didn’t last of course. In 1988 United made major changes to its program.

  • The introduction of 500 mile minimum earning per flight. Up until this time it had been 1000 miles.

  • Elimination of class of service bonuses for premium cabin travel

  • Three year expiration of award certificates (they had certificates back then!) but those certificates became transferable to anyone.

1988 also brought the introduction of capacity controls and blackout dates. Up until then miles could be used for any seat.

Of course there weren’t nearly as many ways to earn miles then. The very first airline credit card didn’t launch until 1986, and the first hotel credit card didn’t launch until 1987.

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. You mean to tell me that air travel and the way airlines are run has changed in 30 years? No way. Thanks for pointing that out. I don’t know what we would have done if you didn’t fill us in on that.

  2. Gary, I’d ignore the the posters above who need show how internet witty they are. I personally think posts on the history of programs/airlines are very interesting. It’s refreshing that your blog covers a vast array of aviation/ff topics. Keep up the good work

  3. This is mindless drivel, but at least it’s better than Ben at OMAAT, who copies content about the new Citi Prestige devaluation from Doctor of Credit, deletes the part about how the annual fee is lower by applying in-branch, encourages people to APPLY NOW via his links, and rakes in the dollars at the expense of his readership. I’ll take a haphazard word cloud about the FFP of yore over that!

  4. I don’t understand why some people keep reading this “mindless drivel ” and further, take the time to write complaints about it. Too much time on their hands, I guess.

    Gary, some of us understand that you can’t please everyone. If I’m not interested, I don’t read certain blog posts.

  5. @stvr – and don’t forget Ben at OMAAT also doesn’t publish reader comments which question something or go against his viewpoint, say a 20 year airline employee saying the contrary to what he says. Kudos to Gary for having journalistic integrity and even if it’s a slow news day, it’s Ok to flash back to some historical events in this area like this post did.

  6. I think it’s a great post about some interesting history. How many times did somebody just came up with a “great idea” and later found how stupid that was…

  7. Zzzzzzzzzz. I couldn’t even finish reading this post. I love reading ur blog but man sometimes I’m like you even post that. Sometimes less is more and more is just trash.

  8. I actually enjoyed reading this and would welcome more of the same. Thanks Gary, much appreciated.

  9. I personally like reading historical tidbits about the hobby whether or not they can be useful for future references. One note about ANA, though. While they do limit you to redeeming for “the immediate family”, the way they understand immediate family (in-laws are allowed) makes it easy to book for anyone. Registering a partner is a one-minute thing, too.

Comments are closed.