In 1981 United Airlines Launched Mileage Plus In Just 10 Days

Mileage Plus founder Steve Grosvald writes in the comments of a post on the launch of American AAdvantage,

I enjoyed a 21 year career with United and my last, of many positions at United, was Manager of Merchandising and Promotion which included all the frequent flyer activities, including the launch of MileagePlus.

Here’s some additional information regarding United: Their first program was the “100,000 Mile Club” plaque on the wall recognition program. That was followed by the very popular Executive Air Travel Program (EATP) directed by my predecessor, Frank Kent, which lured even more frequent flyers…but no flight awards during the regulated period of the industry.

It was the deregulation of the US airline industry that permitted granting awards of greater than $50 in value. As stated on the foregoing comments, AA was the first to launch a “free flight” award program with AAdvantage.

Our understanding was AA felt they would have a several month lead time on the industry. I was thinking 2 -3 weeks for us to launch. Our then VP Sales, John Blackman said, “I think you have 7 – 10 days max.” Whew. We put MileagePlus together, announced it in 48 hours and launched in 10 days….automatically enrolling all EATP and Red Carpet Club members. Lots more involved but that’s the short version.

Several years later I was Staff VP of Marketing Programs at Continental. Working closely with our counterparts at Eastern Airlines which had been acquired by Frank Lorenzo. We jointly developed and launched OnePass. Mike Ribero was my counterpart at Eastern and a terrific guy. OnePass was the first FFP to offer a two tier award system for “anytime” as well as lower “cost” capacity controlled award seats. With OnePass we were also the first to launch FFP linked credit cards….with Marine Midland Bank Gold MasterCards. The industry quickly followed those two features.

Air New Zealand’s frequent flyer program launched in six weeks because they’d heard Qantas was going to spin up a program.

Now changes to individual benefits at many airlines can take months or years of focus groups, consensus-building, and layers of approval. Would any airline be able to launch an entire program in days? What does it say that this has changed so markedly?

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. I joined shortly after it started. The way the upgrades were handled would not work today. The United counter agent 95% of the time upgraded me because he saw me every Monday morning. Upgrade certificates came a couple years later. Wasn’t fair but hey it worked for me.

  2. Interestingly enough I worked for Mileage Plus in the late 80’s after graduating college. At the time it was a separate company called MPI and we were based in Marina Del Rey. It was considered a marketing company and also handled the Senior loyalty program called Silver Wings. I was first working on the mileage side (feel lucky, back then you had to MAIL in flight receipts etc for missing credit and it took weeks) and then got bumped up to a better role at Silver Wings. It was quite hilarious and a fun time. We had no flight benefits though, which sucked. Not even discounted. But we were paid at a higher level. At the time they had this grey haired spokesperson named Betty that was the face of Silver Wings. No one ever met her and we questioned if she was actually real, lol. But the seniors would write her letters every day about their lives, grandkids, etc. I imagine “Betty” is gone now. But I do think, if not mistaken, that Silver Wings is still a program.

  3. When frequent flyer programs first started, I signed up for TWA and American but thought I was wasting my time. I figured that I’d never reach an award level. I was wrong.

    On the other hand, I did not fly too many flights on United that were not credited.

    I flew one round trip on Virgin America, which I thought was lost as orphan miles, but it turned out to be very good because I later was credited those miles in Alaska plus 10,000 miles when Virgin’s program folded into Alaska’s.

  4. .My first gold card with UA was really thick and had no expiration date unlike my advantage card dated for one Year.
    United did not keep honoring it though and issued new ones soon after..
    I had gold the highest level with both at the time. I also had Eastern, Delta and pan ams.
    AA was the first to automatically upgrade so went with them the most and got life status.
    That was when flying was fun, took tools and sharps on psa, ok with security after screenings, was told many times just go.
    Flew AA many times to gatwick up front for $200 round trip, also over
    50 trips bdl, bos, jfk, pvd, to Hnl for only a few hundred $ round trip and ended up in front almost every trip.
    The best deal was 81, 82 fly I think only 5 segments, no mile minimum and get a free first class ticket and earn up to 5 per person.
    The next promo they set a mile minimum as well.
    How about the united fly to all 50 states in a set time period and fly free for, I think it was a year
    Flying then was fun. It really is bad now and I feel sorry for anyone who has to fly today.
    Flew many times upstairs 747 lounge as well as assigned on North West from pdx.
    When I started flying the 727, DC 9, were the work horses and even flew many times to san and saw the DC 9 and 10s being made.

  5. I enrolled in many airlines frequent flyer miles as a business traveler. St first it was great accumulating and making my way up to the various levels of membership for the perks they offered. . To date, and after several years of business travel within the US mostly short trips, I have flown over 859,000 lifetime miles with United. Again these were mostly short trips within the Continental US. I have gotten no recognition for it all and i doubt now in retirement I will become a million mile flyer anytime soon. Several years of Gold membership while working yielded at least a fair chance of an upgrade but after the Continental merger, it became virtually impossible and in most cases had to wait until the day of travel for it’s confirmation. I can attest to chasing many an airplane at 6 am throughout my career as well as getting up at zero dark thirty to do so. I gave up trying for the upgrade after the merger. Now if i want to be upgraded, I buy a first class ticket on any airline I choose .
    I get the perks without waiting because i pay top dollar to get them. It also gives me the certainty of knowing I will be comfortable well in advance of my travel date. But never got any recognition by the United Airlines at lifetime 100,000 miles or at any other interval.

  6. I was in the United program
    Fromm from 83-88. I think it had a KX in the membership number when I lived on the west coast. I moved east in 86 and started flying mostly continental and somehow lost my lifetime miles after converting from continental to United. The rub is that if I had those original miles, I’d easily be over the million mile mark. Does anyone have any idea how I might find those miles. I tried calling United and gave them lots of old addresses but nothing came up. Help!

  7. @ Stuart. I too worked for MPI. I started with the company before MPI it was called Western Direct Marketing in Hollywood we did all the mailings for United’s secretary program and old fight portraits for it’s members. I was with MPI until the company relocated in 1992. At that time we were in Carson, CA.

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