United MileagePlus Is 40 Years Old, Celebrates With New Promotions

United MileagePlus began as Mileage Plus with a space between the two words in May, 1981 – days after American AAdvantage launched the first mileage-based airline program offering free flights. Learning that American AAdvantage was about to announce its program, United pulled off the launch of Mileage Plus in just 10 days.

United is also notable because its corporate predecessor, Continental Airlines, was first to offer an airline co-brand credit card – the Continental TravelBank Gold MasterCard from Marine Midland Bank – in 1986.

For their 40th anniversary United is,

  • Giving away a million miles apiece to 4 health care workers nominated by customers. Four million miles is the headline 40th anniversary offer, and while nice for the winners (who will have to pay tax Update: United will cover the taxes for the winners), that seems quite modest for the occasion.

  • offering a series of bonus offers including up to 1040 bonus miles for online shopping by May 17, double miles with some MileagePlux X app offers through May 31, and up to 40,000 bonus miles and 7 miles per dollar on cruises.

  • United Clubs will sell you glasses of Moët champagne at a discount to celebrate.

  • There will be an award sale, details “announced later this week.”

United’s downloadable .pdf infographic on the history of the program includes tidbits such as,

  • 1983 launch of the elite program

  • Flying to all 50 states in 1984 by adding Wilmington, Delaware – but misses what was notable about that, their unlimited free first class travel for a year offer to members who hit each state with United.

    Seventy eight people did “50 States in 50 Days.” including golfing great Craig Stadler who had won the Masters Tournament two years earlier. The group consisted of 69 men and 9 women, including one bright enough to buy a ‘Visit USA Pass’ for $860 in Hong Kong allowing unlimited domestic travel on United. Another sent postcards to United from every state as extra proof they had been there.

    Every day mileage runners did straight turns off of United’s Boeing 727 flying Denver – Casper, Wyoming. United ended its service to Wilmington in 1991.

  • Their 1987 co-brand card (ignoring their 1986 card via Continental Onepass). First Chicago issued the Mileage Plus First Card Visa with a $45 annual fee (waived for a year). Instead of miles you received a signup bonus of a $25 travel certificate to use on United or Westin, Hilton, or Hertz all commonly owned at the time. The card also came with an upgrade certificate from each of the four travel companies.

  • The 1K program introduced in 1992. United’s computer system only provided 2 characters with which to take members, hence “1K” rather than “100K” for 100,000 mile flyers back when top tier elite status was earned based on miles flown instead of strictly on dollars spent. Here’s a history of United’s status levels.

  • Million miler status introduced in 1997, which United Airlines explained to a court,

    Judge Hamilton: To understand the difference between lifetime and fingers crossed? That lifetime doesn’t mean lifetime?

    United: That lifetime means lifetime unless…

    Judge Wood: Unless we change our mind.

    Judge Hamilton: Unless we change our mind.

    United: Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s the case.

  • Star Alliance awards in 2002 were one of the few times that mileage programs became more valuable (devaluations first hit absurd levels with United’s 1987 rules changes).

  • The ability for co-brand cardmembers to the redeem miles at 1 cent apiece in value was introduced in 2006 as the ‘Choices’ program.

Walking down memory lane is nice, we did it last month with American AAdvantage too. But from what we know so far about the marketing offers, there’s little to get excited. It seems like the programs have lost their creativity and inspiration after 40 years, since there’s nothing here for members to really dive into, nothing to drive folks to engage with the programs.

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. Agree, a terrible lack of creativity! Its hard to believe marketing professionals are coming up with these. I remember in the early 90’s you could buy these Continental Onepass kits for about $50-$100 and it included a leather wallet, 4 upgrades on full fare tickets (but often the airport would honor it for any ticket), Presidents Club passes, etc. The upgrades were the main benefit, plus you got bonus miles. It seemed like many of the promotions in the 90’s were “better” than new ones like this one, I remember a lot of 2x 3x bonus miles. Even giving members 2x 3x miles would be better than this. Or having incentives for members to earn elite status, general members to earn E+ seats, UA club passes, general members earn free same day confirmed change voucher. Tons of things they could have done!

  2. If they really wanted to do something for their customers they could reinstate domestic saver awards.

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