United Airlines: Open Your Wallets If You Want Elite Benefits Next Year

There’s a theme developing at United: all your money belongs to us. Customers exist to serve the airline, the airline doesn’t exist to serve customers. From refusing refunds to customers even when flights don’t operate the same day, to telling customers they’ll still have to spend as much money on the airline this year if they want elite benefits next year the message is clear: loyalty is one way.

No Refunds For You

When airlines aren’t able to keep the schedules they sell you, they refund tickets.
They’re required to do this in the event of a cancelled flight. However when they change the schedule materially they refund tickets, too. United’s policy was a schedule change of two hours or more warrants a refund.

Now with the airline cancelling more flights due to decreased demand they have
a new policy: no refunds unless the schedule change is 25 hours or more. United is saying,

They don’t have to give you your money back even if the flight you buy doesn’t operate the same day. That’s a good reason not to risk buying tickets on United. United must figre that right now nobody is buying tickets anyway, they’re better off keeping the money of customers who bought tickets and won’t fly than actually selling new tickets. Right now you should buy any tickets on airlines that aren’t United. The risk of a schedule change is heightened at the exact same time they’re pushing that risk more onto customers.

Keep Flying Through Fear Or No More Benefits

Business travelers have been grounded by their companies, and leisure travelers aren’t booking discretionary trips. The best customers of an airline aren’t flying. However this is temporary and people will fly again. When they do, an airline’s best customers will once again drive a disproportionate amount of revenue. No one wants to lose their best customers or have them get off the elite treadmill. Once they do they may start from zero – with someone else.

Airlines don’t want to extend elite status too early in the year or else customers will find it easier to fly other airlines with their benefits secure. They’d rather offer incentives to keep status like double elite qualifying miles, once customers are willing to fly again.

That makes business says. What doesn’t make sense is United telling customers to be uneasy about their status and to plan to have to fly through fear if they want to keep their benefits.

United says they aren’t making changes yet to elite qualification but they are giving customers who are doing an elite status challenge an extra 30 days to complete the challenge.

Here’s the relevant text of an email under the signature of United’s Vice President of Loyalty,

At this time, we are not planning any changes for our 2021 Premier program but we will continue to evaluate our options as we learn more about how the current climate is affecting members’ activity. In the interim though, we do plan to give members who are participating in a MileagePlus 2020 Premier Status Match Challenge promotion an additional 30 days to complete their challenge. This extension will automatically be reflected in member accounts within the next week.

Say we are not planning any changes including to qualification rules is the wrong message to send. United needs to tell their customers ‘we’re in this together’ and ‘we’ll accommodate the unique needs our customers have’. Instead they’re only accommodating those whose new elite business they’re trying to win.

Current customers are receiving a message that they need to spend as much with United as before if they want their elite benefits next year. Of course there’s a hedge here (‘at this time’) because we know it’s highly likely this will have to change.

The message should have been,

Right now our primary focus is on providing the safest transportation possible for our team members and our customers. As we see how travel patterns develop over the coming months, we will look at the best way to take care of our loyal Mileage Plus members who are so important to sustaining our business through the current uncertainty.

There’s no elite status extension now because safety first. That makes sense to people.

Instead United’s message is: you’d better fly, loyalty is one way. That’s what we learned from the airline’s new straight pay-to-play elite status program that began this year already.

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. @ Gary — 20 years and 6 million built-in-seat miles with many airlines. I will pretty much not be flying United again. Their greed is disgusting.

  2. At the moment, at least with United, there is less risk using miles to purchase tickets than using cash. Hoard cash, just as the airlines are trying to do.

  3. This is why the “Big 3” fight tooth and nail to keep non-US carriers out of the country. The competition would force them to actually change their increasingly more punitive policies. It’s a daily toss-up to consider which airline is more disgusting, United or American. Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas’ character in the movie ‘Wall Street’) would be smiling to observe their over-the-top greed.

  4. Its been over a year since I last purchased a tkt on UA. Im a MMer

    That said, I believe they are correct at least at the present time not to address Elite Status and instead wait till later in the year and till they know when and if they will return to a full route system. Why should they or any Carrier give it away if theres no need to. If a person hardly flew say to Asia why should UA stopping its flights to Asia enable me or you to maintain 2020 status, when it didnt impact it to begin with

    No Im not a UA supporter if anything the complete opposite, but its something that should wait and then be looked at on a 1 to 1 basis and no blanket credit. However if the bottom line is real bad then expect a blanket credit as long as things wont be restarted soon

  5. So, your picking on the only US airline that has thus far actually addressed the concern of renewing status for 2021? We know your concerned, we don’t know how this will end up impacting everybody, so we aren’t making any uninformed changes right now and will consider changes in the future as the situation becomes clearer. Those that are impacted with a time window to achieve a status match, will have that window extended by 30 days for now. That’s how I read this.

    In your own argument both yesterday and today you point out that it would be foolish to extend status now as that would actually discourage flying with that airline since status was already locked in. I happen to agree with that thinking, so let’s allow the airlines time to sort this out – all of them.

    As a long time United flyer with almost 3 mm, I have found that as a whole United has treated me fairly especially in times of disrupted service – during storms, volcanos and civil disruption. Have they been perfect, no. However they have been light years ahead of AA in their responses across the board- and yes I am also EP with AA.

    So, for all of you who are once again swearing you will never fly United again, excellent, please go fly someplace else so my associates and I can enjoy more upgrades and listen to less whining.

  6. United has been greedy for many years. This latest form of greed is merely a continuation of past behavior.

    Many of us remember the million-mile default of United back around 2011.

    Customers who reached one-million miles (butt in seat) on United were promised certain “lifetime: benefits”.

    To make a long story short, United reneged on many of the “lifetime” promised benefits.

    A class-action suit was filed by United customers. When the case was heard, incredibly, the judge allowed United’s defense of saying “they had their fingers crossed when the lifetime promises were made.” The “crossed fingers” was said in jest but the judge on the case allowed the outlandish defense.

    This gave a new definition for the word “lifetime”

    “Lifetime” also meant “until United changed its mind with respect to promised lifetime benefits.”

    The behavior cost United a lot of customers and a lot of lost credibility.

    Now the financial tables have turned and United is in a potential crisis.

    Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!

  7. Over the last 25 years, I’ve probably flown ~200 flights on United. Lately, they’ve been working hard to give everyone reasons to abandon them. Not saying I’ll never fly them again (especially since they have a lot of gates/flights out of IAD), but I’ll definitely look at other options (such as Delta) first when booking flights in the future.

  8. My home airport only accommodates United and American. I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I have been loyal to United for the past two years and achieved Gold status, but with the new status change coming, I’m abandoning United and just going with the best pricing and route.
    I am also amazed that UA continues to hold fast to very high prices currently. Example: I’m trying to book a RT flight MSP to IAH in Biz, and UA is double the price of AA and Delta. Absolutely no change in the past 2 months.

  9. “…all your money belongs to us. Customers exist to serve the airline, the airline doesn’t exist to serve customers.”

    Are you only noticing this NOW? American, United and Delta have been doing this (i.e., screwing customers and letting them suffer) for decades.

    I find the legacy three so reprehensible I only fly any of them when there is absolutely no other choice in my life.

    What continues to amaze me is that flyers regularly accept that treatment and fight back little or not at all. Are we all such sheep or so utterly fatigued by the American way of working? Some even buy the line that all flyers want is ‘keeping prices low,’ which is also just more deception.

    Sure didn’t take long to forget Dr. David Dao, did it?

  10. This perspective of the customer as the enemy looks like Kirby has been talking to the folks at Marriott for inspiration.

  11. I left United when they implemented a minimum spend requirement to become 1K. I have not flown them since. After all, United does not need my business. Just remember that next time you fly. United does not need nor want your business.

  12. With United’s 2020 Mileage Plus changes, I revisited my airline booking strategy for my international flights. For this year, it’s book the cheapest Star Alliance ticket to max out my benefits. Next year, it’s get the American Express card for lounge privileges and purchase a mix of cheap economy and business class fares. Cheap economy fares on nice airlines like Turkish Airlines, Emirates, etc. and cheapest business class if the delta between economy on one of these good economy airlines is not too much. Based on research, BA and AI have a lot of relatively cheap business class flights that go where I fly for business. Good thing is that it’s easy for me to qualify for BA’s lounge status. Looking forward to trying new airlines and their earning programs. Change is good – we just need to stop being lazy and initiate the change.

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