United Reduces Free Checked Bag Benefit for Partner Airline Elites

United has reduced the free baggage allowance for their partner airlines’ Star Alliance Gold and Silver members.

Without any public, official announcement (and just changing details on their website) the free checked baggage benefit for Star Alliance Gold members was reduced from 3 bags (up to 70 pounds each) to a single bag (up to 50 pounds) on domestic itineraries.

And Star Alliance Silver members no longer will receive a free checked bag on domestic itineraries at all.

This change does not affect United’s own MileagePlus elite members, only the elite members of United’s Star Alliance partner airlines.

De-emphasizing Alliances

Both Lucky and Matthew think United’s move mean alliances have become less important to them.

And while there’s a general trend in aviation towards bilateral relationships and smaller joint ventures (elites of those partners are affected by this change), having extracted as much value as possible from the alliance model, and an improving economy that requires less generosity to passengers (since there’s not as much incremental revenue such generosity generates – planes are full anyway), it’s worth remembering that:

  • With these changes United remains in compliance with Star Alliance rules. There is no baggage benefit as part of Star Alliance for silver members, and here’s the benefit for Golds.

  • This isn’t the first time they’ve reduced the benefits they offer to their Star Alliance partners’ elites. Star Golds, for instance, were once entitled to economy plus seating on a complimentary basis.

Aegean Elites Take an Incidental Hit

Meanwhile, Dan’s Deals declares the change as United ‘tiring of Aegean elites’. That doesn’t seem right.

Aegean Airlines is the easiest Star Alliance member with which to qualify for status. You get 1000 (qualifying!) miles when you sign up and achieving 4000 miles within 12 months earns Silver status. (Note that while all US Airways paid fares earn 100% miles in Aegean’s program, not all United fares do.)

Aegean’s status is, as of now, lifetime as long as you maintain an active account — meaning that as long as you have account activity every 36 months, once you achieve Star Alliance status you keep it. And until this change that meant accruing 3000 qualifying miles in your first year as an Aegean member could get you a free checked bag on United — potentially for life.

Aegean’s Star Gold status is earned with 20,000 qualifying miles… meaning lifetime access to airline lounges when flying Star Alliance same-day.

I expect this generosity to eventually change, via a change in the program’s terms and conditions, but it remains a valuable tool. I am an Aegean Airlines Gold member via status match from british midland’s Gold status (a one-time offer they made, Aegean does not normally status match).

But the ‘Aegean loophole’ is hardly the driver here, it’s a great option but few people know about it and United wasn’t really leaking revenue in a material way such that they’d change their policies of how they deal with all other Star Alliance members.

Matthew’s point about the improving economy and full planes, combined with how lucrative bag fees have been, are the drivers. United will still fill its planes without giving free bags to partner Silvers, so they believe not charging the fees has been a negative for revenue rather than generating incremental business.


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. I definitely don’t think United made this change exclusively because of Aegean but I think it was a bigger problem than you suggest and was one of the contributing factors.

    1. Aegean *G has been covered by mainstream media sites such as CNN, etc.

    2. United wants its own elites earning elite status the hard way.
    If people can just credit a single 6K UA flight in F or 20K of cheap US flights and earn lifetime *G that disincentives the rats on the UA elite treadmill.

    After all, upgrades for lower tier UA elites rarely clear and Aegean *G gets free domestic lounge access unlike UA *G.

    The only difference is the UA E+ access but that can be had for a lot less (or even free at the gate-YMMV) than earning UA status annually.

    3. I was actually surprised by the noise this move has made in my social media networks.
    Aegean *G enabled a lot of Ma and Pa Kettles to circumvent UA baggage fees. These are people who traditionally are not mileage runners but could become elite for life with ease thanks to Aegean.

    They may make up a small percentage of flyers, but when they travel with 8 people and 24 free 70 pound bags it might just raise a red flag.

  2. If anything, UA is profiting from the fees A3 is paying every time one of their *G members enters a United Club.

  3. And they still will get paid when A3 *G enters a UA club. But I doubt it’s much.

    UA would far prefer you being a UA elite and/or holding a United Club card.

  4. I was wondering, how does this work if you are *Gold with Aegean AND holder of the MP Visa Explorer card, which gives you 1 free 50 lbs bag benefit as a cardholder? Do you get 2 free bags total?

  5. @John P – last time I flew United I asked this question to see if that was the case. The answer was, if I remember correctly (Gary, feel free to correct me) that the Explorer card gives you the 1st checked bag free, and Star Gold gave you at the time 1st, 2nd and 3rd checked bag free. So the 1st bag benefit overlapped and one was cancelled. So you had 3 bags free in total. Now, I would guess you will have 1 checked bag free.

    @Gary, I do have a question though. I booked a domestic UA ticket on 09/27 and the confirmation states that “Baggage check-in must occur with United or United Express, and you must have a valid Star AllianceTM Gold membership at time of check-in to qualify for waiver of service charges for up to three checked bags (within specified size and weight limits). Baggage acceptance policies and service charges may vary for flights operated by other Star Alliance member airlines.” Am I grandfathered in the three-bag allowance for this trip? My trip to ORD is on Lufthansa (which gives me two checked bags free), so I want to make sure that my transfer at ORD does not have any issues.

  6. @Stratos – first, the rules of the most significant overwater carrier applies, so flying Lufthansa it is their checked bag rules not United’s that matter. And tickets purchased prior to October 17 are under old United rules anyway.

  7. @Gary – thanks. Its actually two separate bookings (one on Lufthansa and one on UA, though I plan on checking my bags all the way through to DEN) which is why I was concered. But since the old rules apply, I am certainly relieved.

  8. Somewhat related; I notice something interesting on a recent booking. I’m a UA 1K so have free checked bags.

    I’m flying to Hawaii for a wedding next weekend. We fly into HNL, spend a day on Oahu, and then take a UA code share operated by Hawaiian Air from HNL to LIH. Later we fly back home.

    On my receipt/confirmation they show free checked bags for BOS-HNL and LIH-BOS, but $25/$35 for HNL-LIH.

    UA doesn’t do free baggage for their elites on code shares? Really?

  9. Downgrade for United Elites. One of the reasons I have a 1K (expiring in Feb 2014) is because of the Star Alliance. This, the Revenue Requirement on United Metal, lowering the elite qualifying miles (from 1.5 to 1) on premium economy and above tickets of other carriers, are all a frontal assault on the Star Alliance. Expect other Star Alliance members to respond reducing the value of the alliance for United Gold and above.

  10. I’d bet that are far more UA elites who are using the UA elite status additional free checked baggage allowance than there are partner airline *Gs who checked in somewhere between 50.1 pounds and 210 pounds on UA flights. This kind of UA money grab will bring in way more money in the short-term when UA gets around to announcing that it is cutting back UA*S and UA*G free baggage allowance too. There is way more money to be had with bag fees from reduced free baggage allowance for UA elites than there is from changing allowances for partner airline elites on UA metal — the only restraint is what DL and AA do … and even that is not much of a restraint given the lack of competitive pressure in an industry that has been given way too many government favors and governmental allowances to collude/combine.

  11. The credit card free bag and airline/partner airline elite status free bag allowance are not combined — whichever is higher prevails.

    Gary,

    Are you sure that UA hasn’t been grabbing any money for 2nd or 3rd sub-70lb bags from *Gs on tickets purchased prior to October 17th.

    UA has some recent history of trying to charge partner airline *Gs for baggage fees even for the first checked bag. I saw this on united.com at check-in time within the last two weeks for tickets purchased before October 17th, for 50-70lb bags (be it 1, 2 or 3 bags) on flights out of DCA to ORD; and for sub-50lb single bag PNRs too.

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