Lawsuit Filed Against United for Changes to Million Miler Program

Via Seth, a frequent flyer has filed a lawsuit (.pdf) against United for changes to its Million Miler program, and is seeking class action status.

Here’s a thread on Milepoint running to hundreds of comments on changes to the MileagePlus lifetime status program, which has plenty of detail.

United’s Million Milers have been an unhappy bunch for some reasons that I find persuasive and others that I do not.

In general, the complaints are:

  • 1 Million Mile status earns the equivalent of that earned at 50,000 miles of flying. That was true before, and it is still true. But United has since added a 75,000-mile status level. Which means Million Milers are lower in the status pecking order than before — they’re only one up from the bottom as before, but also further from the top. Further, benefits at the 50,000-mile flying level have been reduced, now earning a 50% bonus on flown miles instead of a 100% bonus.
  • No more systemwide upgrades upon first qualification for million miler status, and no annual confirmed regional upgrades.
  • Not mentioned in the lawsuit, United’s 2 million milers used to receive lifetime lounge membership. Those that already crossed that threshold get to keep the benefit, but new 2 million milers won’t receive it.

At the same time, United has added to its million miler program:

  • The ability to grant equivalent status to a spouse or partner. That’s a big new benefit, actually.
  • The ability to achieve higher lifetime status levels than before, culminating in lifetime Global Services at 4 million flown miles.
  • Combining lifetime flying from United and Continental, and adjusting upwards the amount of lifetime miles flown by United members to match the more generous historical method of calculation used for Continental members. This recalculation bumped many members closer to or above next tiers of lifetime status without additional flying

On the whole, I actually considered the initially announced changes to be positive.

United has always said it could change the program under its terms and conditions. But lifetime status is especially cherished and a hot button issue because it’s the most extreme version of Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football possible — it isn’t just saving up miles only to find a more expensive award chart and not being able to claim a mileage award without earning more miles, it’s having given a lifetime of loyalty to an airline and after having flown with no opportunity to go back and make a different choice, finding the value proposition changed later. It’s hardtop imagine a bigger punch to the guts of a frequent flyer than saying “If you fly a million miles on our airline we will give you certain things,” you literally fly those million miles, and then when you get there you’re told “just kidding.”

At the same time, it’s entirely logical that a program will change its details, especially after a merger when two airlines had different million mile policies. And some of the changes are positive even. Some folks will like the changes, others won’t, and it’s not obvious that legal damages are appropriate here.

Still, United specifically assured Million Milers at United that their benefits wouldn’t change.

They got Premier Executive before, they get Premier Executive now. United never promised not to devalue the Premier Executive level that I’m aware, that’s something programs do, it’s unfortunate but I don’t really see a case based on changes to the elite level itself. Some will disagree, but I draw a distinction here between devaluing the million mile program and devaluing the elite program. Million Milers still get the same elite level as before, it’s that elite level whose benefits are different.

It’s offensive and degrading of trust to say in October 2011 “[y]ou will continue to receive your benefits as you always have” and then take away the specific benefit of annual confirmed regional upgrades.

In fact, United was even specific in October to say that the confirmed domestic upgrades would continue:

I view United as basically having lied. But for statements made recently, customers didn’t fly for years on the basis of the statements, so damages from that statement are hard to see. Other than of course damage to United’s credibility. And not every lie ought to be actionable.

American recently offered straight up status matches to United elites, up to their top tier Executive Platinum level. (And at American, flying 100,000 miles earns true top tier status, whereas at United 1Ks are below ‘Global Services’ in the pecking order). So other airlines are taking advantage of the situation.

That doesn’t help United’s million milers who feel disadvantaged by the changes. Which just underscores the point I’ve been making for years that frequent flyer programs change, that they tend to get less generous, enjoy them now rather than savoring them for some glorious future filled with benefits.

Miles from Blighty sums up some recent complaints about United.

Some folks actually benefit from these changes, and from others in the program. It’s worth remembering that before the United-Continental merger announcement, United used to ‘block’ partner award availability when the airline didn’t want to pay for the seats — a partner would offer award seats, United wouldn’t let its members book the seats, and frequently even lie to their members saying either at the seats were unavailable or even that the flights didn’t exist. That changed, and ‘Starnet blocking’ or ‘throttling’ is no longer in place. Furthermore, Continental’s more generous award routing rules make it easier to put together an award with available seats. United used to enforce a maximum number of miles flown on any given award (based on origin and destination cities0, you might find available flights that exceed the mileage cap and couldn’t book the award, the new merged airline doesn’t take that same approach.

There are upsides and downsides to the changes. I consider changes to the mileage redemption program to be positive, and changes to the elite program to be negative, my personal opinion. We all make our flying and earning decisions on the basis of our personal value proposition. I have sympathy with folks who have given a lifetime of loyalty on the basis of promises made by the airline only to find what’s being offered changed. But that’s how things work, and I don’t think I’m sympathetic to a lawsuit over 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. I am not sure I would support the lawsuit, especially (as Seth points out) when there are errors in the paperwork.
    However, I think United has been somewhat the master of its own problems here. For example, the recalculation you mention, didn’t in fact, go back to when one started flying United for Million Miler calculation, only until about 1992. This means a lot of people missed the maximum bump they might have received. Only weeks later did United admit this. There is little transparency with this airline now and I am disappointed with that.

  2. Although unfortunate this happened, suing them is not going to help really anyone. The cost of litigation, etc. is just going to screw everyone in the end. Employees laid off, program benefits trimmed, and bitterness. Doesn’t help anyone.

  3. From a public relations viewpoint, the changes to the UA Million Miler and Mileage Plus program have been poorly handled by the merged COdbaUA. United started its merger with a major devaluation of the Mileage Plus program. 1Ks only earn 4 CR1s for earning 100K EQMs. The creation of the Platinum level is to appeal to CO flyers by having a 75K elite level, yet they earn 75 percent bonus RDMs. Premier Executive which is now called Premier Gold with the bonus RDMs being reduced to 50 percent. For those holding this status as lifetime MMs, the reduction in RDM earnings is topped up by the loss of 2 CR1s annually and the loss of earning 3 bonus SWUs upon reaching MM status. The addition of status for a spouse or partner is a nice feature, and so was the one time EQM bonus(for Star partners, high yield fares of F, C, Y, B, etc.), and Chase EQMs. However, they do not replace the benefits that are lost for 1Ps.

    Premiers aka Star Silvers really get the shaft with an inability to select Economy Plus until 24 hours before a flight and a free baggage allowance of one checked bag.

    In short, the merged company has stated that its elites will experience, “changes you will like,” and these changes have been reduced benefits. This is probably though of as a cost saving measure of overentitled flyers by certain members of management, but I think it is unwise and likely to loose customers. IMHO, the best policy is the customer is the king or queen, and a happy customer is a loyal and profitable customer.

    Gary, you and lucky both switched your business over to AA as you found better value in the Executive Platinum status. I think other UA elites are certainly exploring the dAArkside as well.

  4. Gary,

    Could you do a post on the “new” routing rules? I’m not familiar with CO’s all that much.

  5. @Dan I probably should, there’s not all that much transparency, prior to integration United allowed you to travel 15% over the published maximum permitted mileage for a routing…. with the integrated United/Continental, we basically have the old Continental rules, that don’t explicitly or consistently enforce maximum permitted mileage at all. At least sometimes. And there are some contradictory rules, such as enroute stopovers being permitted but circle trips (like US – Hong Kong – New Zealand – US) not being permitted, even if Hong Kong would be a permissable stopover between US and New Zealand (which under an MPM+15% concept it would be for some ciry pairs and not others).

  6. It was simply mishandled. I think some are of course happy, and others not. Duh. There WERE mis-statements by UACO, and that IS really something they will ultimately have to deal with. I think one might get some sort of annual CR1 pop again, with a domestic several allocated.

    The real issue, is the demotion for the true 1MM 1P. (premex) Many people (and I’ll say it, myself included) had literally WORKED to reach what was arguably the most strenuous 1MM threshold in the industry. REAL MILES, no bonuses, just BIS..I was within 25K when the new gross up strategy was announced. As well, that there was going to be someone in front of us 1MM 1P’s.

    Honestly, if UACO really wanted to make a 0P (Platinum level) that is fine, but they should have simply made legacy 1MM, 0P, and OFFERED people the option. STAY with your BIS 1MM objective and get 0P when you hit it, or get the fast-track gross up and only get 1P at 1MM (bonuses adjusted)

    YES, there would be TWO calculations to be made, but honestly I’ve done this sort of thing for three decades now, and as long as the data is in the system, the system can be made to use the data.

  7. Does anyone have a link to the source for that second quote? Such a specific statement is quite different than the more general one above.

  8. “Million Milers still get the same elite level as before”

    Disagree. ‘Elite’ as a word, not as their definition, is a distinction in status from others; it’s where you fall in the distribution. If they invent a new status above you, you are less elite.

    While there is some value in further differentiating status and building the program out, the trend of devaluing an elite status — either by altering the distribution admitted, OR worse by specifically defining new “more elite” categories needs scrutiny.

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