United and Continental Elite Program Changes for 2011

Others already blogged the details while I was in meetings today (e.g. here and here) but still worth noting that United and Continental have announced changes for 2011, mostly aligning their upgrade programs.

The two programs operate separately in 2011. And just as United moved to and end of January the following year for status expiration, Continental will follow suit. Then they’ll merge the programs for 2012.

When they do there will be clear differentiation between 25,000, 50,000, 75,000, and 100,000 mile flyers.

Put a different way, United’s top tier is 1K at 100,000 miles flown. Continental’s top tier is Platinum at 75,000 miles flown. Clearly a combined entity wasn’t going to have a 75,000 mile top tier, just too easy to reach that and would mean too many top level elites (who were thus frequently unsatisfied with consistent delivery of upgrades).

So the question was, were they going to have 4 tiers (which was US Airways’ solution to a similar problem when it was acquired by America West) or were they going to go with United’s levels?

Thus far we only know that there will be four mileage levels for determining upgrade status. Whether the 75,000 mile level will be a separate tier between Premier Executive and 1K is unclear, versus just being a ‘plus’ on top of regular Premier Executive. Ultimately whether or not they call it this I’m expecting that in practice this will amount to being a four-tier program.

Oddly, they’re increasing the number of segments required for top tier from 100 to 120. That’s a lot of enplanements, I’d prefer to qualifying flying premium cabin long-haul thanks! Those segment qualifiers have it rough and now even rougher.

Continental will be adopting United-style systemwide upgrades — 6 earned at the 100,000-mile flyer level with the same fare restrictions (valid on W or higher). Global Services stays at the revenue-based true top level. And miles credited to Onepass and to Mileage Plus in 2011 will be combined to determine 2012 status.

And the biggie — a change to Confirmed Regional upgrades. Currently United 1Ks earn 2 domestic upgrades confirmable at booking from any fare (subject to upgrade availability) for each quarter in which they fly 10,000 miles or more, up to 8 confirmed regional upgrades per year.

Going forward, United and Continental elites will earn 2 Confirmed Regionals at the 75,000 mile level and an additional 2 for each 25,000 miles flown thereafter.

This is an upgrade for Premier Executives who fly 75,000 miles, they’ll get confirmed regionals for the first time.

This is a downgrade for those just squeaking into 1K status, they’ll get 4 Confirmed Regionals in a year instead of 8.

United tried to get rid of the Confirmed Regionals when they introduced their ‘Unlimited Domestic Upgrade’ system, and there was a backlash. They’ve been looking to restrict these and they’ve found a way. It’s not crazy, not all that surprising, even somewhat reasonable. But it is a takeback from most current 1Ks, though high-mileage 1Ks can earn even more of them than before (e.g. fly 175,000 miles and earn 10 instead of the previous 8).

Most of the above is pretty much as-expected, and several positive elements have come about lately especially the introduction of one-way awards on partners on United while retaining roundtrip awards with stopovers, and the ability to make changes to an award after departure of first flight (a la Continental). United hasn’t done much Starnet blocking in the past six months, I’ve really only seen it as an issue for about 10 days during this period. So I certainly hope it stays that way.

Continental’s award routing rules are still more generous than United’s (Continental allows a stopover and an open jaw on roundtrip awards, not just one or the other, and they don’t enforce ‘maximum permitted mileage’ restrictions on routings). My personal bet is that United’s more restrictive approach applies. But then Continental didn’t have one-way awards, and as long as they don’t have Starnet blocking (preventing members from booking award seats being offered by partner airlines) it’ll be a reasonable tradeoff.

Now we just have to find out what the combined airline is going to do about Economy Plus — which really is the biggest elite benefit for low tier elites who regularly fly in coach — and that’ll answer much of whether the combination is on net positive or negative. Personally I’m betting they keep it, it’ll be tough to get rid of and unpopular. But the Continental bean counters may be a tough sell on that one. And I’m also hopeful that at least on ultra-long haul and high-end premium routes that they keep international first class, something Continental hasn’t offered.

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. The CR1 thing could go either way. Under the old system you needed 10K on UA metal to earn CR1s in a quarter. The new system says any EQM earning gets them. So if you have a quarter of long-haul international travel and you choose to fly a foreign flagged carrier you can still earn CR1s. Or if your heavy travel is in March and April you can still earn CR1s.

    I do not think it is a definite good/bad as many are making it out to be. There is a lot of gray in there.

  2. The confirmed regional change for me as a 100,000-120,000 mile flyer does hurt, but I’ll live with it. Certainly not up to the “I’m defecting to AA” level that some are claiming to do on Flyertalk. We’ll see what happens next.

  3. As a 100,000 – 120,000 mile flyer with UA, with a company which will only buy economy fares, I’m treated pretty well by UA and the CR1 thing is really not an issue. However, Economy Plus is what makes UA distinctive. In fact, I chose to do my travelling on UA purely because of Economy Plus – I really was not aware of all the distinctions in different mileage programs and did not even realise that there were formalized upgrades!

  4. And remember that 3 Million Milers won’t get their SWU’s anymore as 1K’s for life. You’ll only get SWU’s if you fly 100k miles in the year

  5. The old United was great for 1K’s. My biggest concern is that the new United would rather sell upgrades than give them to 1K’s for “free”. I suspect the bean counters at CO just don’t value the whole loyalty thing that United is or was quite good at. And it’s not just my spend, I divert quite a bit of spend from friends and family when I gift them upgrades. I assume they have done their maths properly.

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