Starting Next Year United Elite Status Will No Longer Be Earned Based on Distance Flown

United will stop counting how far you fly for earning elite status. United will no longer have 25,000 mile, 50,000 mile, 75,000 mile and 100,000 mile status.

Instead – starting in 2020 for customers earning status for the 2021 program year – United will count how many flights you take and how much you spend. And if you want to earn status without taking a lot of flights, just spend more.

Historically elite status wasn’t “how much have you spent” but “how much of your total available spending are you giving me?” The old metric of miles flown was imperfect, but a proxy for wallet share. As spending alone takes on greater importance someone flying a couple of pricey business class tickets a year, while giving most of their business to another carrier, will earn status. Someone slogging out all of their travel with a carrier may not.

The question, of course, is whether United’s move will mean that fewer passengers wait around for a less convenient flight time to stick with the airline, or whether they’re willing to take a connection to fly United when another airline has a non-stop. And just as importantly, whether customers stretch to spend more on United to earn status, and whether that makes up for any business lost.

Two Ways to Earn United Elite Status Going Forward

United will offer two ways to earn status – spend and a minimum number of flights, or just spend (with a minimum of 4 United flights).

  • Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) is the new qualifying dollars. One US dollar spent is equal to 1 Premier Qualifying Point.

    Premier Qualifying Points are earned the same way qualifying dollars are earned today (base fare and seat fees) plus they’re adding paid upgrades and MileagePlus upgrade award co-pays.

    Travel partner flights (non-016 ticket stock) will finally count towards qualifying spend, as it does for both Delta and American. They’ll take the number of redeemable miles earned for a flight and divide that by 6 to get the number of qualifying points earned for Star Alliance partners and by 5 for their ‘preferred partners’ Lufthansa, Air Canada, ANA, and Copa. And since non-United tickets will count towards required spend, international customers will no longer have the spend requirement for status waived.

  • Premier Qualifying Flights (PQFs) replaces segments. There will no longer be fare class multipliers. A flight is a flight is a flight. One takeoff and landing is a qualifying flight, except for award travel and basic economy fares which don’t earn flight credit.

Today United’s spending requirements are $3000, $6000, $9000, and $15,000 for Silver, Gold, Platinum and 1K.

Here are United’s new levels. Two things to note:

  1. Qualifying Points will be easier for international flyers to earn on partner tickets, but the amount of spend required goes up.
  2. As revenue for the airline gains in importance and actual flying lessens in importance, the number of segments required for status will go down.
Premier Qualifying Points (PQP) + 
Level Premier Qualifying Flights (PQF) Premier Qualifying Points Only
Silver 4000 PQP + 12 PQF 5000 PQP
Gold 8000 PQP + 24 PQF 10,000 PQP
Platinum 12,000 PQP + 36 PQF 15,000 PQP
1K 18,000 PQP + 54 PQF 24,000 PQP

$8000 spend to earn mid-tier Gold status and basically never get upgraded seems like a lot to me. So does $18,000 for 1K – notably the spend requirement for customers is going up, and the airline isn’t giving any more benefits to customers.

United created a video to explain the changes:

Spend on United’s Credit Card Becomes Less Useful

Plenty of members have been spending $25,000 a year on United co-brand credit cards for a waiver of the minimum spend requirement for elite status (up to the Platinum level). That spend waiver goes away with these changes, since spend with United comes front and center.

United credit card customers will be able to earn 500 premier qualifying points after $12,000 in spend each year, and another 500 premier qualifying points after $24,000 in spend, for a maximum total of 1000 PQPs that count for status up to the Platinum level. This credit card spend won’t help earn 1K status, which – given the most you’d have been able to earn is $1000 out of the required $18,000 spend – seems petty to me. (Legacy Continental Presidential Plus Mastercard cardholders will remain on a separate system.)

United is unhappy with Chase. They want Chase to pay them more for the relationship. They worry that Chase is making inroads with their Ultimate Rewards cards whose points transfer to United miles. (Two years ago United’s financials suggested to me that MileagePlus revenue growth was largely coming from these transfers.)

However United has a long-term deal with Chase and Chase has no reason to pay more without getting something in return. I have to think that once there’s a rapprochement between the two that the cards will become more valuable for earning status again, as well as for earning upgrades.

How United Explains These Changes

I spoke with Luc Bondar, United’s Vice President of Loyalty, to understand what’s behind these changes. He shared that their goal is to make the program “much simpler and transparent for customers” and follow what they’ve seen from “other travel industry leaders, some of what we’ve seen in the hotel space.”

He believes that “distance is no longer a good proxy to measure a customer’s loyalty” that perhaps it was “when programs were first introduced” but that the industry “has been transformed with the introduction of different price points that allow customers extraordinarily cheap fares to fly extraordinarily long distances, and qualify based on low levels of spend while receiving a high volume of benefits at the same time there are many customers who today are flying frequently and often short hops, spending a lot of money but not qualifying for top levels.”

It seems to me of course that these ‘different price points’ that are actually new (American Airlines introduced Super Saver fares in 1978) is basic economy, and United already restricts elite qualifying using those fares. Moreover the notion of qualifying on low levels of spend went out the window with the introduction of minimum spend requirements for status. (United even refused to allow the credit card spend waiver to help customers earn 1K status.)

At the point that spend is all that matters, it becomes less about actually choosing United over other airlines. I asked Luc why not just allow customers to buy status outright? His answer is that they “want to reward customers who fly United.” Indeed they have a minimum of 4 flight segments on United for earning MileagePlus elite status, regardless of spend.

Bondar tells me that they expect this new elite status structure to “increase the overall size the of premier population” – apparently there are plenty of people spending a lot of money with the airline but who aren’t flying enough to earn status – so the change will “rebalance across program tiers, doing a better job making sure the best most loyal customers are 1K, Platinum, and so on down.”

He recognizes that “any change is never going to keep everyone happy, customers today have gotten used to doing a mileage run at the end of the year, to almost gaming the system, seeing how little could they spend and still qualify.” His narrative comes back around to eliminating gaming though of course year-end segment runs may still be necessary and the minimum a customer could spend for 1K is well known: $15,000.

In the end their “goal is to make sure [they’re] lining up customers into the right tier as effectively as possible, while many will move up there are also customers that will move down. Those movements will be a better reflection of [a customer’s] loyalty to United, the value they give to us” and in turn the value they receive back from the program.

Will Other Airlines Match?

Delta and American Express just relaunched their co-brand cards effective at the end of January including a change to how spend on those cards earns elite status miles. Delta would be hard-pressed to follow United in the near-term, and Delta isn’t known for following United (it’s the other way around).

If I’m betting on an airline for American to follow it’s Delta, not United.

So if I had to guess both Delta and American retain miles as a piece of how you continue to qualify for elite status. They certainly could raise the minimum spend requirement for status, of course. Currently both Delta and American have $15,000 as their minimum spend for top tier, though of course Delta makes it much easier to earn that via credit cards.

United Boldly Revamps What is Considered Loyalty

On the one hand a straight appeal to spend feels crass, in an Ice Cube Gangsta Gangsta sort of way. On the other hand it’s also extremely honest. The airline is being clear on exactly what they value from a customer. Bondar is right that this is simpler and more transparent.

With this change United goes a step farther than competitors. American and Delta award miles based on the cost of a ticket just like United does. All three have inched towards revenue-based redemptions. Until now all three had minimum spend requirements for status. United is the first to pull off the veneer entirely. Spending is no longer just a check to make sure the lowest revenue frequent customers can’t earn elite benefits. Now spend alone is all that’s needed.

Customers who are being fired with this move – who may have hit a $15,000 spend requirement for top status, flying domestically without travel on partner airline tickets, for instance – will be unhappy. United’s bet is that they’ll have more customers giving them more spend than they’ll lose.

I guess the question is, though, now that points aren’t earned based on how far you fly and elite status isn’t earned based on how far you fly, when they give up the name MileagePlus?

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. My only question is when I buy my ticket using the currency in the country that I live, what conversion method will UA do to convert it to US dollars to then assign PQP?

  2. This is beyond dumb. So, one guy who flies two trips in international business-class gets 1K status but someone who flies 100 segments per year on a government airfare or the lowest economy airfare won’t because it isn’t distance based? Wow. Wow. Wow.

  3. @ Gary — This seems like a pretty stupid move on United’s part, as there is now absolutely no reason to fly them unless the fare is lowest or someone else is paying. The requirements are flat-out absurd for what you get in return.

    I am more and more glad I stuck with Delta every day. With the new heavy focus on MQMs in the new AMEX deal, Delta will likely just increase the MQD requirements for 2020 and maybe again for 2021. Then, maybe something more drastic will change if this new system actually works for United.

    It will be interesting to see how American moves forward.

  4. The piece I find odd is the PQFs….Don’t these punish someone who flies a direct flight versus a connection? It pushes people towards lower cost 1- or 2-stop flights.

  5. In a world where 10,000 mile r/t flights for $500 are not that hard to find this seems like a logical and reasonable approach for United to take. Maybe gameable a bit around the edges (using very long, very cheap partner flights to Asia) but considerably more likely to align status with actual value of the customer to United.

  6. Those of us with the old presidebtial plus cards get to stay on what system? Our entire MP accounts?!

  7. What confuses me the most is how UA thinks this will drive marginal spend. I mean, there’s no point in rewarding people who are going to spend money on UA, anyways. This has always been the challenge of loyalty programs. They’ve obviously decided not to incentivize the purchase of economy tickets. The real question is whether people buying business class can be induced into putting all their spend on UA /when they otherwise don’t have to/. After all, there’s very little benefit of elite status when already flying on paid business class tickets.

  8. Who still cares about status? You never get upgraded anyway, which is the primary benefit of status to me. Just use points to travel in whatever cabin you want for next to nothing. Fine if you are a business traveler, as your status is paid for by your employer, not you…but for leisure travelers with a reasonable understanding of the points game, anyone who chases status is a fool.

  9. So, seat fees count for spend, but other fees (checked/ excess baggage; change fees; etc.) don’t?

    And what about International itineraries/segments where other fees and fuel surcharges can be as much, or even more, than the airfare itself?

    Maybe it’s just time to ditch these so-called “loyalty” schemes/ frauds / cons – because they’ve become a one-way street where the airlines demand a lot, but offer very little in return.

    If that’s their definition of “loyalty”, given how one-sided the relationship is, it begs the question:

    “With (disloyal) ‘friends’ like our airlines are and how they show their appreciation towards their customers, who needs enemies”?

  10. @Joelfreak, existing Flex PQM -> PQP at a 5:1 ratio. “Any Flex PQM not converted by April 1, 2020, will be automatically converted to Flex PQP. There will be no new earn of Flex PQP.”

    “During the 2020 calendar year, Presidential Plus Cardmembers will earn 500 PQP for every $12,000 spent, up to 10,000 PQP. PQP earned on and after January 1, 2020, will be applicable to Premier status levels up to and including 1K.”

  11. Alex says, “The piece I find odd is the PQFs….Don’t these punish someone who flies a direct flight versus a connection? It pushes people towards lower cost 1- or 2-stop flights.”

    To me, this is more about those who fly United and those who fly Star Alliance partners, but credit to United. In this case, United is saying it requires less dollars to earn status, as long as you have segments on United. Kind of like of Alaska has lower thresholds when the flights are on Alaska, rather than their partners.

  12. A big overhaul of the system, but I think we will need to see where it turns out. As noted above, upgrades and the benefits of loyalty have pretty much dissipated already. I’ve been wondering what impact the new points-based upgrade system in place of certificates would have, and I will wait and see, but I will be surprised if it does not make upgrades even more elusive.

    I could already see that I was likely to make only plat for next year under the current rules – not because of the PQDs, which I will now barely make, but the PQMs since those went fare-based, because I am often buying the cheapest discount international business class. I’m sure I have much better RPM than a person buying $500 economy tickets, but not nearly as much as those paying $9K for a TATL RT (a price I have often seen on UA in the last year, and wonder how many they sell). Under this new program, I suspect I will still make plat only, with the increase to 1K of $18K and 54 flights. (Though I thought I would not make $15K this year, and yet I will, so who knows.)

    Maybe UA thinks this will encourage people to buy more of those $9K TATL business class flights. But for those of us who buy 4-5 international business class tickets annually for work and yet are still budget conscious, it may just encourage us to be even less interested in 1K. I mean, I like boarding before everyone else, but I can live without it. It was only really useful to me to the extent I could use my GPUs.

    And one thing I learned from being AA Plat Pro recently was the ability to select seats for free on BA international flights. With connections, that saves about $300-400 per RT, on top of being cheaper business class than UA already (and much better food, on top).

  13. So if one PQS is so clearly defined as one takeoff and one landing, and my flight from London has to stop in Canada to offload a drunk passenger, or I’m on a 757 from Copenhagen that needs to refuel in Shannon… you see where I’m going with this.

  14. Chucking a bit at those who raved about PointsPlus believing it was all upside and all positive

    No, the shoe was always going to drop w/United on the backside (for the vast vast majority…congrats segment runners ex-EWR/IAH)

  15. Economically, a company can command a premium price when there are barriers to entry. For airlines the barriers to entry include control over certain airports, ability to spread out regulatory costs, lack of airline seats……..credit card relationships (extra revenue), and the elite system.

    Why is the elite system a barrier to entry? People with elite status will tend to fly that airline. In a sense, they are captive customers. Reduce the elite base, the barriers to entry becomes smaller. Over the long run, (ceteris paribus as economists like to say) that will negatively impact pricing power.

    The airlines have been hurdling towards lower barriers to entry, which in the long run, will reduce pricing power and make all ticket pricing decisions transactional.

    United will pay the price. They do not see it yet.

  16. Man, I was lucky to hit my Million Miles this year. No matter how low I drop, I’m still at least Lifetime Gold with United. Since I fly from DTW I always have to change flights. If I don’t do well with this odd new program, I can always fly direct on Delta.

    But I’m so tired of these changes. I’ve been 100% loyal for over 15 years, starting with Continental. The past two years I’ve purchased mostly first class tickets, and I bounce between Gold and Platinum.

    I just don’t see how this is a mileage reward program.

  17. They should just rename MileagePlus into MoneyPlus since the reference to the UA Program as MoneyMinus or MileageMinus would be way too honest for the company and industry’s apologists.

    This UA program change may benefit me, but I don’t have much use for UA’s program anyway.

  18. I just don’t get this.

    In their own words, they think this change will “increase the overall size the of premier population”, meaning they actually expect the number of upgrades their premier population gets will *decrease*.

    They increased the cost.

    They offer no new benefits to offset the increase.

    How, again, do they expect this to generate an increase in loyalty?

  19. @Jon it will clearly increase the number of silvers and golds who flew enough from a revenue standpoint before but not from a distance or frequency standpoint to achieve more. The right business class ticket could get you silver alone (except for the 4 flight minimum). I suspect it will displace plenty of current 1Ks who don’t hit $18,000 while minting several new 1Ks that take 6-8 business class trips a year. It’s probably going to be a good time to be a 1K but a much poorer, diluted time to be less than that, with varying degrees of worsening depending on your level.

  20. United is like a ho. Wants your money, but becoming less attractive over time (more seats, worse frequent flyer program, yuckier food, less cleaning, might even catch something on the United plane). So ho’s main strategy is to try to shoo away other hos (buying politicians and airports, price matching with other airlines), to become the only game (maybe one of three games in town) in town (monopoly or oligopoly power). Then demand more money for fewer services. If you want to get pleasure from the ho (or travel in the case of airlines), you have to pay up or stay at home watching TV. Disgusting!

    Finally, I am thinking the senior management of United are similar to pimps. The ho does all the work the pimp (ie United management) gets all the money.

  21. Co-pays always should have counted, ditto paid upgrades, hard to argue with that. The increase in required spending is enough that very few people were having trouble qualifying yet spent thousands in co-pays, so it’s not like people are winning out, though people who did paid or mileage upgrades have the blow softened a bit.

  22. Cross-posting to contribute The view of a UA 1K/1MM/lifetime *G:

    The elimination of the PQM requirement is without a doubt meant to reward very high spenders who failed for make 1K because they did not fly “far enough” in total. By contrast, these changes penalize long-haul travelers who made 1K by traveling ‘far enough’ without paying too much ($15K).

    Since I am a “long-haul traveler who made 1K by traveling ‘far enough’ without paying too much ($15K)”, these changes truly suck. There is no way I am going to spend $18K, much less $24K, just to make elite status. So, I will requalify for 1K in 2019 and then when the new qualification rules kick in, I will stop caring about making status with United. I will just purchase premium cabin tickets with any *A carrier that gives me the best deal (no longer UA locked-in), and then fall back on my lifetime UA Gold and *Gold status going forward. I was already increasingly purchasing premium cabin tickets to fly upfront, anyway. This just liberates me to do it with any carrier that gives me the best deal (I will limit myself to *A carriers because of my lifetime *Gold status), instead of flying with UA almost exclusively.

    I knew that the day would arrive when I would have to get off the airline status treadmill, but I never knew how I would feel about it. That day has arrived and, strangely enough, I feel liberated. I was increasingly depending on CC spend for my redeemable miles and points, so with respect to my redemption pattern, getting off the airline status treadmill won’t change much. My Year-end Asian Escapades(tm) will continue unimpeded. To “punish” UA, I will be crediting all my UA flights (status and redeemable miles) to SQ KrisFlyer with which I may even achieve status…

    Free at long last!

  23. Predict 50% of UA rev biz pax ex IAD (i.e., lawyers) will make 1K within 3-4 months. Making the pre-board and Group 1 Lord of the Flies dynamic even worse than it already is. Will be interesting to see whether these changes impact GS thresholds…while GS benefits erode to nil.

  24. @OtherJustSaying,

    +1 & +1 for pair of comments above!

    As I’m certain you (& others) understand, I couldn’t agree more with your discussion re:

    1.) the airline industry’s high barriers to entry; co-opting/buying off/pay for play (etc.) of politicians & airport operating authorities;

    2.) that the industry is open, notoriously & flagrantly displaying some of the exact behaviors in its pricing models as one expects to see in industries that are, or are in the advanced phases of imminently becoming, monopolies & oligopolies.

    I’ve said it before, but yet again, this latest sleazy move by United more than warrants repeating my mantra as regards our sleazy, dishonest & clearly unappreciative of its fare paying customers who have desperately too few, in any, options:

    “Oligopolies are great!” – said by NO ONE except the oligopolists & oligarchs who exploit consumers & for now at least, get away with it.

  25. DCS and JAN: I agree with you 100% Why chase a status with United or any other airlines when you buy 1st or business class tickets? We started with Continental and have been 1K with United since the merger but were never able to use our Regional or Global comps.
    Question for DCS: When you credit your United miles to SQ Kris Flyer account does United count them towards segments flown with United?
    There isn’t US based airlines worthy of our loyalty. What are our benefits? None as far as we are concerned.

  26. @Maru — When a flight is credited to another airline, everything associated with it is credited. There are no partial credits. United won’t count anything, including segments, related to a flight credited to SQ.

  27. I suppose it boils down to what you would attract. There are always some ticket classes that are downright nonsensical, costing more than the price of cancelling and rebooking at the last minute. If by ‘loyalty’ you mean encouraging those on expenses to buy those tickets and charge them to someone else, go right ahead. I would just suggest that the loyalists who behave that way will also be interested in squeezing every penny from their airline. I mean, if there’s a passenger who will make an airline pay for the ticket, it’s the one who exploited company policy purely to get a better upgrade position on the next vacation flight.

    My personal story is that I am loyal purely because of the status benefits. My business travel is doubly restricted to economy and price limits within that. I routinely choose to transit through a hub over flying directly because of the difference status gives me. Should the conditions switch more to spend, I’d go to flying nonstop. It’s a value proposition, and I’ll recognize the value in a slightly higher airfare. I will even do some slightly crazy itineraries. And, when I’m not traveling for work, I’ll shell out for TATL in J. But I can’t be the dude who overcharges for a trip, and I would rather fly with the airline that lets other carriers deal with them.

  28. “much simpler and transparent for customers” is basically a euphemism for “because our customers requested it”, isn’t it?

    The other part of this is that while they may well expand the total number of members, my guess is that because of the expanded requirements and removal of the spend waivers, the number of 1Ks and 75k members may very well go down. They didn’t say anything about that .. just that they expect more members to earn status.

    -David

  29. Catch 22 – if you fly economy, you’re unlikely to reach any status. And if you fly business or first, why, there’s no extra benefits from the status.

  30. If United wanted to make things simpler, they would go back to a mile flown=a mile earned. They could still add lots of restrictions to hit reasonable minimums. Instead, they choose to offer a big middle finger to their most loyal members who don’t spend huge amounts of money with them. Another Scott Kirby masterpiece.

  31. Long time coming. Using miles flown was an artifact of the airlines lacking systems to associate revenue with each segment flown. Now that those systems exist, the old mileage-based systems made absolutely no sense (even after all sort of band-aids, such as fare-bucket adjustments etc).

    I expect the others to follow suit.

  32. “One takeoff and landing is a qualifying flight…”

    I doubt that’s technically true. A through flight (same flight number) with an enroute stop would have two takeoffs and two landings, but I bet MP would only count as one qualifying PQF.

  33. So, if I’ve got this try, flying economy to Europe or Asia from SF probably earns more PQP on partner airlines than the will on United. Sounds like I can stop flying United overseas!

  34. The question many aren’t asking right now is, will Air Canada (the nearest Star Alliance member just to the north) follow suit? If there’s a sizable customer base that would want to move away from United, will they move to Altitude/Aeroplan instead? And if they do, will they eventually encounter the same rules change under AC?

    Only time will tell.

  35. Gary that is very profound that it is based on distance the question is that I carry a lifetime gold status as 1,000,000 mile preferred flyer what kind of status will I have when United institutes their new system.

  36. What really determines “loyalty” to United Airlines? For many years, I have used United Airlines ( and before that, Continental) for almost all my domestic and international flights. I graduated from Silver to Gold and finally to Platinum status during my working career. I was assisted in my quest for a higher status by my employer, who paid for my business travel, which certainly helped towards my status goal. I also used United 100% of the time for my personal domestic and international travel to reach the minimum requirements to upgrade status. Now that I am retired, I travel only for personal reasons and still travel only on United, whenever possible. I am not a wealthy individual by a long shot, but I enjoy vacations and new life experiences. I utilize my United Presidential Plus MC extensively and needed my Flex Miles earned to maintain Gold status the last few years. In 2019, I have flown on United to Aruba( 2x), Ft. Lauderdale, Cabo San Lucas, Nassau Bahamas, Nashville, Orlando and Las Vegas. I fly direct flights all the time for convenience and time saved(total of 16 segments this year). However, I will need to use ALL my remaining Flex Miles to maintain Gold status for 2020.I consider myself a very loyal United customer ,despite the substantial delays on many flights, the mediocre food, the ” less than friendly” experiences ,the inability to receive any complimentary upgrades the vast majority of times, etc. Based on the new requirements, it is extremely doubtful I will be able to reach Gold status in 2021, probably Silver at best. I will have to purchase more expensive tickets and/or buy paid upgrades to meet the monetary requirements. My Flex Miles Program will be discontinued, and the best I can earn by utilizing my Presidential Plus card is 1000 PQP toward Gold qualification ( even though I spend between $40-50,000 a year on that Master Card). Seems the ” new definition” to be considered a loyal United customer comes down to either being a frequent flyer employee working for a company that prefers using United, or be an individual making a substantial income to afford the higher qualifying monetary minimums. If you are someone who travels 6-8 times a year for leisure and tries to find the best prices for Economy Plus seats, you no longer are ” loyal enough” for United Airlines to attain the questionable at best value of attaining Gold status. Therefore, 2020 will be the last time I will qualify( without spending a lot more money for tickets). I will no longer use my Presidential Plus MC as my primary credit card. I will also be flying American, Delta, Jet Blue or Southwest based entirely on who offers the best deal for my travel plans. The price of loyalty to United has become too expensive and the quid pro quo value to the customer has been reduced.

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