United Airlines Has Gotten Really Good At Celebrating Customer Milestones Inflight

United’s MileagePlus program offers the most generous lifetime elite benefits. At one million lifetime miles you earn Gold status – mid-tier, which is Star Alliance Gold and comes with lounge access – not merely silver like competitors do. Moreover,

  • You can keep going, since two million, three million and four million miles earns Platinum, 1K, and Global Services status for life.

  • The partner of a lifetime elite gets the same status as the lifetime elite. So a 1 million miler earning 1K status gifts their spouse or partner 1K as well.

This is more generous than what other airlines do. At Delta it takes 6 million lifetime miles to hit Diamond (1K equivalent) and there’s no million mile threshold that awards 360 status (Global services equivalent). At American there’s no way to go higher than Platinum status, and since upgrades are prioritized based on prior 12 months of activity a lifetime Platinum who is no longer active is at the bottom of the platinum tier even.

But what United has gotten really good at in the past couple of years is recognizing lifetime achievement in the moment and making it special.

The most frequent things you see on airline twitter are damaged checked bags and passengers who were forced to gate check their bags despite plenty of overhead bin space available on their flight. Then digging down into what’s unique about each airline’s twitter account, and at Southwest it’s the fun hijinks of cabin crew – whether joke-telling, singing, or sending rolls of toilet paper down the aisle. At United, it’s thanking them for the recognition of customer achievements.

So it didn’t surprise me, but it did impress me, when a former boss texted with how United acknowledged him for crossing two million miles. Kevin Gentry shared, “I became a two-million miler today. The pilot on my United flight from Chicago to Grand Rapids gave me his flight plan.”

Acknowledgment from the captain always means a lot, but Kevin continued later. They didn’t just recognize him once.

And then the next day, “So, they recognized me a third time. This was probably the coolest.”

The recognition was across multiple flights on his trip and “in Denver their head of operations came on board and made a really big deal about it, announcing to the passengers.”

Airlines have tremendous data about their customers, but rarely make use of it. They put tablets in the hands of their crew, and talk about ‘being able to know a customer’s favorite drink before they ask’ but usually the data just sits on a shelf (or inside a CRM). United has brought it front and center in crew devices and managed to get their employees to use it.

And that’s huge. Because in Kevin Gentry’s words, “The authenticity and thoughtfulness — and improvisations — made it really special and appreciated. And of course, I’ve been telling everyone!”

IN 2009’s Up In The Air George Clooney is on a quest to cross 10 million miles. The first class seat beside him is kept empty on the flight where he does so, and the airline’s chief pilot joins him for the celebration.

To me, in-person recognition is more valuable than Delta’s million mile gifts. United isn’t spending money, but their employees are spending time. They’re noticing, and customers feel ‘seen’ at the moments that matter most in the brand relationship.

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. And for those of us that were at 1,000,000 miles premerger we ended up getting screwed,

    We were promised lifetime 1K , and got reduced to gold.

  2. Sometimes I feel like I fly a lot and I’m a mere United Gold. I cannot even fathom hitting so many miles in the air. There was a recognition of a 2 million miler on my flight a few weeks ago and it was pretty cool.

    Also, how do they even calculate it anymore? MileagePlus has nothing to do with “miles”. It’s just spend + status multiplier. It’s really kind of BS. Flew to Hanover, Germany and back to Sacramento and it was like 5,500 “miles” total. Actual mileage is like 6k each way.

  3. When I crossed 1 million on UA, I boarded the flight and got nothing. I told the FA as I was leaving and she said “that’s nice for you.” I got a lucite brick in the mail with a card inside a few weeks later. I’m closing in on 2 million in the next few years (it would be this year but I’m flying UA less). I wonder if it will be as momentous as 1 million.

  4. I’m nowhere close to even 1 million miles but when I scanned my boarding pass at the gate on Saturday the agent wished me a happy 30th anniversary as a MileagePlus member. Just one throw-away sentence from her but it left me with a smile on my face. Doesn’t make up for my bag being sent to the other side of the country a few days earlier but that wasn’t her fault and sometimes it’s just nice to be noticed.

  5. Not quite the same thing but on a flight from Denver to Des Moines, I got thanked for 5 years with MileagePlus while boarding. Super dumb but it felt nice.

    (Interestingly, I didn’t get thanked on my Seattle to Denver leg – maybe a hub thing?)

  6. Thanks, Gary. This is a nice trend by United. I hope to get to one million UA miles while they are still so customer-focused.

  7. I was given a note on my flight to Rio from IAH congratulating me for 30 years of being a mileagle plus member. I am 45 and I guess my parents enrolled me as a kid. I was given a hand written note in my cramped economy seat. I guess? it was nice lol. they could have at least given me a drink or a chocolate or some miles or SOMETHING… anything??

  8. I achieved my million miles in 2019 while on a round the world vacation with my wife celebrating our 42 anniversary. My wife mentioned it to the flight attendant & she said thanks. That’s it.

  9. Nice to see this now. Unfortunately like Anthony I got bupkus (as your Grandma would say) when I crossed 1MM miles a few years back. No recognition whatsoever on the flight (and no 1K CPU). That said the lifetime perks are more important, as you note…

    At one point I was sorry I did not charge up $1MM on my Citi AA card for lifetime Gold status, but no worries, I can get most of the same perks with a $99 Barclays card.

  10. Sorry to break your bubble but that does not happen every time, I just hit my one million milestone on United, nothing was said, I said something to the pilot as I left, he said congratulations the main stewardess said OH we looked for you I have a red star for you and I was going to blow up a red Ballon for you and then laughed. On my next flight the steward did say thank you for being a Million-mile customer, when we just about time to land he asked me if i like champagne and he brought me a bottle of champagne, so I walked off with a full bottle ???
    What happen to the great service at Continental airlines miss those folks!!! I cannot wait to see if i can get to two million.

  11. This is awesome to see. My Dad had a plaque from both United (think it was 1966) and TWA ( late 1950/early 60s) to highlight him as exceeding 100,000 miles back in the day. He flew numerous Connies, DC – 3 to 7’s and even the Stratocruiser with Pan Am. Love the plaques, a great memory for me of him since he traveled so much when I was growing up and I did the same after I was married.

    Recent AA flight my wife got a Thank You note for being Exp Plat and for your loyalty. Would love to see more of this.

  12. Nice touch. Not so nice for 1,000,000 loyalty. And points plus expire worthless.
    I will say that on a return trip from Europe, to my surprise I was wished a happy birthday and given a signed card.
    Not so nice, I too feel screwed for only receiving gold lifetime after having flown 1,000,000 miles.
    The skip the wait using points plus is marketing BS. I’ve never been able to use this feature. Most of the time my points plus expire worthless.

  13. I hit UA 1MM on a SYD-LAX flight in 2016. I was greatly surprised when the flight attendants (the pilots were not involved) suddenly congregated around my biz-class seat and offered me a congratulatory glass of wine! It felt especially good because (a) I’d taken the long trip to Down Under and back as a mileage run specifically to hit 1MM and (b) I’d told no one about it!

  14. A flight attendant approached me mid-flight and handed me a bottle of Champaign and pair of pajamas from business class (I was in Economy) when I crossed the 3mm mark. I was really surprised the flight crew knew to mark the event.

  15. I hit 1M last year on a regional flight. The attendant thanked me, but no announcement or chip. On my return leg on a full-sized jet, Captain Graber came back before the flight, congratulated me, thanked me and gave me my chip. He then announced it during the flight. I think my row mates enjoyed it at least as much as I did. A really pleasant experience. On subsequent flights, my flight attendant will frequently thank me during their service. Well done United.

  16. @Larry Audette sez: “And points plus expire worthless.”

    I think you meant PlusPoints, and one thing they definitely aren’t is “worthless”, unless you fly out of especially elite-heavy hubs.

    Flying out NYC (LGA/EWR) between November 2021 and August 2022 — i.e., less than 12 months — I cleared fifteen (15) PlusPoints upgrades, including 5 that I sponsored for family and friends. Importantly, 7 of the 15 PlusPoints upgrades were for international Polaris Business (PZ). If that is “worthless” then we have a different understanding of the word, because there is no elite cabin upgrade instrument out there today that comes close to delivering what PlusPoints do…(I will be happy to post the hard evidence).

  17. They told me happy birthday on Thursday (2/2) exiting my flight from SAT to IAH… My birthday was actually Friday… VERY nice of them…
    It’s crazy though… 2 club visits, nothing… that’s where they used to recognize me.

  18. Little things matter. I used to like being thanked for being MM on old UA days. When I hit MM, though, I did not get any notice on the flight (although I had read about it happening here and there to others). Too late for me, and I doubt I’ll ever hit 2MM, but I’m happy for everyone else to get a little something. (And yes I am a pm-UA guy who lost out on Premier Exec for life vs the pm-CO folks who got taken care of… that did contribute to me exploring non-UA flights, frankly, as at the time it really felt like they didn’t care about my loyalty. Happy it may be changing!)

  19. I am gold and have 600K miles with United and deploying to asia on Monday the 13th. I don’t have plus points as I am just Gold this year. Last year my plus points expired since I didn’t travel much on United (Common Carrier rules for routes). I love Flying United but just wish I flew more. This next flight will be 16+ Hours. I sure miss when miles were 1 for 1 and not PQP and some weird calculation for miles.

  20. American really sucks in this department, and I’ve gotta give United credit. As you say, they don’t even have to spend any money. That little bit of personalized recognition goes a long way to making a customer feel truly valued.

  21. I appreciate United’s effort at personal recognition but I don’t think public announcements are appropriate (without permission of the honoree). I hit 1MM in the fall. The gate agent called me by name to the podium and then made an announcement, which I found hugely embarrassing and a breach of privacy.

  22. I’m still grateful for the time I achieved my 3 million miler status. I have the photo of the pilot and first officer with me that day. Not much else happened but they had great smiles and I always cherish that moment. That felt very special on a commuter flight. I often roll my eyes because I’m the three million miler and established the 1K for life but my husband is the one who is often profusely thanked. I nicely make sure the crew knows I’m the one with the seat hours to achieve this level and he’s the tag along on all MY flight hours!

  23. @Gary – I suspect that there’s a factor at play in all of the 1MM celebrations in the pictures. If I had to bet, they were all Global Services passengers, judging by the presence of Premium Services agents with yellow ties/scarves. Those sorts of celebrations go along with Jaguar transports between connecting flights, etc.

    I don’t think mere “mortals” start getting that kind of recognition until they hit 2MM.

  24. I made 3 million miler some years ago. I asked for a photo on the commuter flight with the captain and first officer. I love and cherish the photo. I sometimes roll my eyes when a crew thanks my husband for being a 1K when I’m the one that achieved the 3 million miles and 1K for life while he enjoys the 1K that I accomplished. I nicely set the crew straight on who really earned those 3 million miles!

  25. I’m about 80k short of 2mm but may take ma a couple of years to get there with a huge decline in work travel post pandemic. I got zero in the moment recognition. for crossing the 1mm mark Glad to see United make a big deal of it now.

  26. What’s a “chip”? I passed a million in 2019 Singapore to SFO…..Zero recognition. I got in the mail the typical packet (w a paper 1 million miler card)…… I repeat… Paper. Too cheap to make it plastic.

    I don’t fly united anymore. It’s all ANA, EVA etc.

  27. @Brian Freese…my life long friend is married to Captain Graber. They were thankful and very happy I passed on your comment to them. I am a 40 yr flight attendant at another mainline and wish we did more of this. Thank you on behalf of the Grabers and myself for the lovely comment.

  28. When I hit one million many years ago I did not know it & nothing from UA about it, when I hit 2 million I received a gift from UA and a card handed to me as I boarded, at 3 million a card and a gift that I was able to choose that was shipped to me, & I’m a few years when I hit 4 million I guess I will look forward to getting a photo with the pilot in the cockpit and that will be better than the gifts or cards!!

  29. Pre-Covid, when I hit 1Million, the agent at Premier check-in stalled me for a minute and spoke to the counter supervisor, who then scrambled, looking for something. After boarding, the FA in Business handed me an envelope – it was a generic card for hitting 1 Million, with my name spelled wrong. The FA had no idea what it was for.
    Later, like Anthony, I got a generic Lucite brick.
    Other than SA lounge access outside the US (not to United’s own lounges), the Million Mile threshold wasn’t that big a deal for United, or me.

  30. I hit my million miles on United last year on a relatively short domestic flight. Not only did they not say anything at all, they didn’t acknowledge my 1K status when they did the beverage service in economy, and asked for my method of payment when I ordered an alcoholic drink. I know the app that have shows status, so I was confused all around.
    I get that it’s not required, but after flying so many miles, a simple “thank you” would have been nice.

  31. It was about 15 years ago, I was sitting in an upgraded First Class seat, when I turned 1 million.

    I didn’t expect champaign, but I thought the flight attendant might thank me.

    Nada. Zip. I like UAL and it has treated me well, but an acknowledgment that day would have been nice.

  32. Sadly I got zero inflight recognition when I hit 1 million on United about four years ago. Nada. Was looking forward to it so I was pretty disappointed. Was maybe five flights later before a flight attendant, almost as an afterthought, mentioned “hey I see you became a million miler recently; thanks for your loyalty”. You’re right they have stepped it up recently because it was pretty sad not too long ago.

  33. I reached 4 Million Miles (GS forever) on a flt from NRT-ORD. No ceremony or plaque. Much more important, the great service and constant recognition at airports, by phone or in flight is always my reward.

  34. Last fall I hit million miler status on a last minute trip from Washington to Accra. An agent met me at the gate when we started boarding. Several of the crew stopped by before we departed along with the captain who gave me a medallion. During the flight the purser gave we a gift bag and we snapped a few pictures.

    I’m not big on a lot of this stuff, making a big to-do, but I have to say it was nice and I appreciated it. It felt sincere and not forced. They did a really nice job.

  35. Well, isn’t that just super.

    It took United six months to acknowledge an employees 30th company anniversary. And United doesn’t even make any acknowledgement of an employees 35 anniversary in anyway at all anymore. Oh, maybe a computer generated certificate.
    But hey! That’s just….great.

  36. As a point of reference, I hit 1MM on Delta last year and my wife mentioned it to a FA before takeoff.
    The pilot announced it and came back to my seat with the purser for handshakes and pictures. Nice touch, but my impression was that if my wife hadn’t mentioned it it would have gone unnoticed. Like the handwritten notes I used to get from time to time from crew members thanking me for flying it seems it’s more of a random effort than any planned action by the airline.

  37. I hit 4MM last September on SIN-SFO. I got no recognition at all. I had to tell the flight crew and cabin crew about the milestone. Yes, after they knew, the flight crew gave me an autographed copy of the flight plan. But that was about it. No onboard announcement. Nothing else.

  38. When my husband and I were on his 1MM flight, I mentioned it to the flight attendant. We were in domestic first.

    During the flight, she made a nice congratulatory announcement. The only problem? She said *my* name, not my husband’s, which puzzled us. We quickly figured it out: we had switched seats on the flight, and she was simply reading the manifest to get the name of the person sitting in 2A.

    My husband and I laugh about this from time to time, and it makes for a funny story (to avgeeks!). More memorable than if they had just handed us a card or made a (correct) announcement!

  39. When I crossed millionth mile, I was on way to Tokyo and it was around my birthday. The agent upgraded me to business class as well as my husband. I had gone up to see if there was seats available and to pay the upgrade fee and it didn’t occur to me that it was because of the milestone. Just assumed it was good fortune. The captain came out to congratulate me.

    On the return, we were in our seats in economy and the agent came and gave me and my husband new tickets to business class and wished me a happy birthday.

    To this day, it’s my favorite story about United.

  40. I got my million miler last week and they announced it and whole plane applauded. It was a great recognition

  41. I am envious – or hurt. I tripped over 1MM about 5 years ago LHR – LAX. I told the agent at check-in that this would be my Millionth Mile. “So? We see a lot of that.” What did I receive on-board? Nothing. What did I receive in the mail? A cardboard business card with my name on it.

    So UAL – if you want to kiss and make-up, contact me. B—–84

  42. IMO, there is a palpable change for the better at UAL. Since I began flying again post pandemic, UAL, of the 3 carriers I most often use, has shown the most improvement overall. It’s a real change and I appreciate the effort of so many there who make it happen. Nothing is, or will be, perfect. But acknowledging good things is a pleasure to do.

  43. Well I hit million somewhere over the Pacific from Australia to San Francisco it was like the middle of the night so nothing. I took the trip specifically to cross the million mark.

    I didn’t mention it to FA and she said drinks on her, but it was sad consolation for my upgrade on return to clearing.

  44. I am not a business traveler but have worked very hard to make my 2.5 million miles. At 1 million I got a piece of paper. At 2 million I got to pick out an award. I am now at 2.5 million and don’t expect anything when I hit 3 million either. Neither time did I receive recognition. In fact at 2 million I was accused to having a pet on Board I did not pay for (and there was no pet!) I know what I have put into to obtain this goal. While I have not, it is nice to see others get recognized.

  45. I am a 3 mill miler 1K. On a recent 8 hour flight MAD-EWR I was not once thanked for my loyalty nor even greeted by name in the Business cabin!

  46. @Mike
    Sorry to hear that you didn’t get your lifetime from UA. When I got mine from Continental, they sent me a note with the new card, telling me how much they appreciated my travel. When they bought out UA, I sent them an email asking me if my lifetime status would remain. They sent me back an email telling me that yes they would. That was how many years ago.

    My wife and I do not travel that much now that we are retired. But living in Malta, flying LH several times a year, it is a pleasure to be recognized by Star Alliance with Gold, gaining access to the LH Senator Lounges.

    But, it should be noted that today’s FF don’t travel the miles they earn. Most of them, probably are earned by not even flying. So, it is much better to call it a frequent purchase club. I used to earn my status the old fashioned way: by traveling 75% of the time. Started earning miles with the Eastern Executive Travelers program, before cycling into the Continental One Pass program.

    As a sidelight, I believe that EA was the first airline to serve burgers in FC. Too bad the mechanics pushed them into bankruptcy. They had a fantastic hub in KC. From any major city on west coast, you could connect to any major city on the east coast, without being in the air within 30 minutes. They were still flying the L1011 from Miami-Seattle, via Atlanta. Saw the best and worst of management with them. Gordon Bethune was a class act, who actually cared about his OnePass members, even meeting with us.

    When many on this blog bitch and moan about such and so airline, I would remind the many that loyalty is a two way street. How many flights do you actually take now? Probably not nearly as many as those of us who 80’s and 90’s.

  47. You are right loyalty goes both ways. When the CO folks took over they gave the UA million miles (who had to earn it BIS unlike the CO folks) lower status. And then they started gutting the program. The way I was treated demonstrated the new UA did not value my loyalty anymore. So I stopped being loyal. I fly a lot still, but what used to be almost 100% UA is not now. In some ways it has been freeing.

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