United Airlines MileagePlus no longer has anything to do with miles at all. You no longer earn points based on distance flown. You no longer earn status based on distance flown. Award costs aren’t based on distance either.
With elite status now based on money spent they’ve put an end to “miles” completely.
While Delta is usually the leader in making customer-unfriendly changes in its marketing program, United actually has at least as long a history as Delta of wanting to move in this direction.
- In 1987 United made changes to its frequent flyer program to ‘better reward their highest value customers’ (although the changes were in fact bad for everyone.
- In 2003 Robert Sahadevan, who was responsible for Mileage Plus (and was later the Mileage Plus Vice President pushed out when Continental took over) told me that “for too long flyers have gotten more value out of the airline than their revenue was worth.” Sahadevan described the upgrades and bonuses received by 100,000 mile flyers who haven’t paid high fares as “an inefficiency in the system.”
That year United’s top tier elite systemwide upgrades were valid only on full fare tickets. United deemed that experiment a huge mistake and issued additional (“Sweet Spot”) certificates valid on any fare.
- United was actually first, in 2011, considering instituting minimum revenue requirements for elite status though it was left to Delta to actually go first.
- In 2012 United’s CFO called their elites “over-entitled”
While it feels like today the pace of change in loyalty is rapid and for the worse the truth is that the pace of change is actually slow and for the worse. In 2014 Air France was publicly talking about moving to a revenue-based program. Their changes took years, and their program is still better than Delta’s.
A conventional wisdom develops inside the industry, and the industry suffers from groupthink, but for the most part change takes a very long time. It wasn’t until 2017 when American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said he wished the loyalty currency had never even been called miles, grousing “American should have called them dollars instead of miles 36 years ago.” Jumping on the other latest fads (albeit late) he said at the same time he wanted AAdvantage miles “to be like bitcoin” an alternative currency that could be spent on anything.