United’s New Elite-Unfriendly Upgrade Priority Already in Effect?

The new Mileage Plus program doesn’t start until the beginning of March, I’ve ranted on this before, but the thing I like least about it (beyond taking economy plus-at-booking away from first-tier elites) is that upgrade priority now factors in how you’re paying for the upgrade even ahead of elite status.

In other words, a general member burning miles they earned from their United Visa trumps a 1K. I’m expecting that to be the death knell for 1K complimentary upgrades on smaller planes during peak business travel times.

But is the new algorithm already in effect? Here’s a battlefield report that makes me think that it is — a 1K and a non-status member are on the same reservation. They don’t clear in advance, though their upgrades had been supported by confirmed regionals. At the gate the 1K is number one on the list (1K on a discounted fare but ‘paying’ for their upgrade rather than waiting for it for free). The non-status member is #14, The upgrade list was over 40 people long.

Historically the United method has been that at the airport everyone is on their own status. A non-status member would have been at the very bottom of the pack. But this non-status member, whose upgrade was being supported by a 1K’s confirmed regional, was in the top third.

Since the changes to the Mileage Plus program have been announced I’ve paid less and less attention to it, and more and more time spent learning AAdvantage and also poking around US Airways Dividend Miles (I live about 10 minutes from Washington’s National Airport where US Airways is the dominant carrier, and they’ve added first class to plenty of their regional airports, there’s a certain attraction to the program now). So I admit I have not tracked the progress of changes to upgrade priority in Mileage Plus as closely as I normally would have. Is the new upgrade priority in effect, and driving this example? Or is something else going on here, like higher priority for companions at the airport than in the past, i.e. 1K companions fall below 1Ks but about Premier Executive 75Ks on the airport list? If that were the case, it would be another change from how upgrades worked at pre-merger United as well.

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. At the old Continental, the companion would have been put on the list before all of the fliers of the next level down. This could definitely be happening.

    From the announcement of new benefits, regarding complimentary upgrades: “They are available to all Premier members, as well as to a companion traveling on the same reservation as a Premier member.”

    And also this: ” In addition, one companion traveling on the same reservation as a Premier member including Premier Silver will also be eligible for a Complimentary Premier Upgrade on select flights, and may be confirmed with the same priority as the Premier member.”

    I’m not sure either is exactly the scenario you describe, but reverse engineering their exact algorithm may be impossible.

  2. I’m 1k and tend to fly on inexpensive fares. This year, my UDU rate is 25% I didn’t track it that carefully last year, but I know it was well over 50%. I fly out of SFO, but on less busy days of the week. Anyway, this is anecdotal evidence at best, but I’m sensing that in 2012, anyone’s superior fare class trumps my 1k status.

  3. All i can say is that as a 1K, so far this calendar year has been tough. Last year, I only missed one upgrade and all of the other upgrades cleared during the window, usually at the 100 hour mark. This year i am only at 50%, and am also having to play upgrade roulette at the airport.

    Perhaps it will improve once all of the expired top tier elites drop off in March. But something is definitely going on.

  4. As a United 1K, I cannot see what is wrong with so-called First Class being sold ahead of totally free upgrades. After all, before Unlimited Complimentary Upgrades, the only way to get into First Class was to buy your way in, either with money, miles or instruments. Something that is complimentary and unlimited should generally be at the end of the line, behind people will pay.

    I think the big issue, though, is how much United will be selling the upgrades for and how United values upgrade instruments versus cash. For example, we would all agree that a First Class seat sold at full price should always trump an upgrade. But how about a First Class seat sold at the gate for half price, or quarter price, or $2.50? Likewise, with miles – what’s the mileage value of a Regional Upgrade? These are all unknowns and, until they are know, or at least the ballpark range is known, it’s impossible to say whether the 1K upgrade instruments have truly been downgraded.

  5. I have no problems with the seats being sold at full value, or even the Y/B instant upgrades if they were only to elites. But they are devaluing the loyalty proposition of their most profitable customers, while at the same time, AA is rolling out the red carpet to its EPs.

    At the same time, UA cut in half the number of earned CR1s at 100k, for which i am finding out are also tough to clear. Upgrades have become a total mess for 1K, which as Gary has pointed out, is really not even top tier anymore.

  6. I flew UA from Orange County, CA10 days ago. Just before boarding I asked if there were any exit aisle seats or bulkhead seats and the gate attendant said “There are. Are you willing to pay to change your seat. We charge for those now.” I’m don’t hold status with UA and was not willing to pay. There had been several Exit aisle seats flying in and there were flying out too.

  7. Personally, I’m not a fan of companion upgrades triumphing other elites. 1st is limited capacity as it is, and giving the space to a never-fly, over a mid-tier seems to dilute the loyalty.

    On the other hand, to maximize a couples ability to upgrade on differing airlines, you could have each person fly & collect on their own airline nearly exclusively, and when you travel together choose the cheaper tickets btwn those airlines & have same chance of upgrades as if u were elite.

  8. “the death knell for 1K complimentary upgrades on smaller planes during peak business travel times” Wow. If this doesn’t fall in the hyperbole category, I’m not sure what does!

    While you may disagree with the policy, the impact will be relatively insignificant.

    Other carriers have prioritized other instruments over non-“segment” upgrades for some time, and it hasn’t impacted top-tier (or second tier) segment upgrade success anywhere near what you’re suggesting.

    Think about it – how many low-elites or general members are going to use their prized miles for a one class upgrade to a mediocre premium cabin on a shorter flight (where, in general, smaller planes will be used)? While that number is greater than zero, it’s not a big population. the experience of other top- and near-top-elites on the other major that offer such a scheme has been insignificant.

    Unlimited segment upgrades certainly changes the dynamics of upgrade queues. This “instrument ahead of status” is an important countermeasure in the unlimited segment model. Beyond the 1k community, it offers mid-tier elites a decent chance to get an upgrade when it really matters to them (which won’t be all of the time).

    “Death knell?” C’mon… “Slight Dimutation” would have been a better headline for this post.

  9. unfortunately for those of us who live in leisure destinations, mileage upgrades ahead of loyalty is a significant devaluation, e.g. HNL routes. This is not insignificant.

    Especially given they do not provide even so much as a bag of peanuts on these routes. I guess I have to be satisfied that I can still play the Halfway to Hawaii game for the 100th time if I wish.

    I would also add that even though it was never an elite upgrade route on CO, the HNL-GUM route is now serviced by a domestic configured aircraft, and that route is not even eligible for CR1s. At least before it was worth it to upgrade with miles, as it had the international configuration.

  10. United is slowly taking away the value proposition for the average 1K. I guess part of the problem is that there are just so many people flying these days. If I see my upgrade rate drop below 90% which I haven’t yet, I will reconsider my options.

  11. It’s interesting that most of the bloggers — Gary, Ben, Rick, Brian — have, or are, bolting for the exits of United-land. (OK, maybe Brian doesn’t count, since he was never a United guy to start with.) And most interestingly, Gary lives in a hub city!

    Maybe $misek is willing to say good-bye to those who seek value in a loyalty program, and just rely on the rest. It’s an interesting plan, but with the amount of alternatives at the major hubs (ORD, DEN, IAD — if you count DCA, LAX, etc) that it might not work quite as well as his bean counters tell him it will.

  12. Flying back OGG-SFO last week, only half the F cabin was sold in advance, but our upgrades still didn’t clear. I was #1 on the list at the airport (no seats left, though) as a 1K and my companion, a Gold, was #4. I was kind of surprised she wasn’t #2 since she was supposed to be sharing my status, but maybe the couple in between both had 1K. I think my particular glitch had more to do with the nuances of the companion upgrade policy, but I was still surprised I didn’t get a CPU.

  13. Its not just the um, “cheap blogers” who are bolting for the door at the new UA, its lots of biz people too. Think about it, who wants this confusion.
    I am now 75K at UA, what does that make me? Less than midtier 1K and greater than not much… What a bother.

  14. I’m surprised to see everyone running for the exit so quickly. UA 1Ks flying at least 100,000 miles in 2011 earned at least 12 CR1s and 6 SWUs. Under the new upgrade system, these will trump the free upgrades. That alone is enough for me to stick with UA for 2012.

  15. @Gene, 1Ks only earned 12 CR1s, if they flew 10K quarterly and then the 2 CR1s at 75K and 2 more at 100K. Where there will be problems is earning CR1s for use in the following year with 1Ks now earning only 4 CR1s when they fly 100,000 miles. This is one of the aspects of the new United I dislike which is that they created a 4th status level in Premier Platinum and reduced CR1s from 8 to 4. The other bad aspect is the reduction of the 1P mileage bonus from 100 percent to 50 percent. My guess is that United is trying to emulate DL SkyPesos in terms of mileage earning.

    I do like the fact that there are a lot more flight options and choices now.

    @ScottRick, what day of the week and time did you fly OGG-SFO?

    I am taking a wait and see approach to how the UDUs work after the merger. If UDUs are not allocated to elite flyers and instead are awarded as buy ups to general flyers or non status flyers often trump elites, then this is a recipe for creating unhappy elites.

  16. My experience Thursday was exactly the opposite of what you describe. MrsB and I reserve SFO-IAD on separate record almost 3 months prior to departure. Both rez immediately supported with CR1s. F cabin of 30 seats is almost empty. My Rez as 1k clears within 3 days. Mrs. Bs never clears, she ends up near the bottom of 70 person wait list at 24 hour mark. Clearly a non status passenger will never clear a sponsored upgrade (or miles) if they aren’t on sme record as an elite.

  17. I don’t see the problem with putting people who are paying to upgrade ahead of those who aren’t. The upgrades are complement, not, “hey you are 1K, you get an upgrade.” It should go by paid upgrades first (fare class -> elite status) and than PDUs (elite status -> fare class). Sorry, but a 1K flying on a Q fare shouldn’t get a PDQ before a general member on an M fare that is paying to upgrade.

  18. @Kris Ziel that’s what United (read: Continental) believes. I liked the old 500 mile upgrade system, but with UDU replacing it I still want 1Ks getting upgrades or it devalues what it means to be a 1K and makes American MUCH more attractive for a 100,000 mile flyer, all else equal.

  19. AA has done a great job poaching all the travel bloggers away from UA. Now they need to concentrate on the increasingly disaffected 1Ks. The GS will never leave UA, of course.

  20. Flying LAS – IAD – JAX last saturday with my wife (no status) we both were confirmed into first 3 or more days out and there was a waiting list. Not sure if 1k spouses get better standing or not.

  21. This year is my first as a 1K flyer nd it’s been very disappointing for me. Last year I flew 124K miles all domestic and was upgraded about 50% of the time. Not a great percentage. This year I’ve flown 29,400 miles with many NY (JFK) or Newark to SFO and no (zero) upgrades. I’m hoping it gets better as many use up their regional upgrades. In the NY market I have many choices and maybe calling American to test them out.

  22. I don’t do FT, so I will rant on this old post. I am an 8 year 1k. Tonight is a 3 month adv purchase IAD-ORD with a scheduled departure of 10 PM (delayed until 11:35, so waiting for the cx). I am currently fourteenth on the ug list. Tomorrow night, on a 749 PM departure from ORD-RDU on the Friday before Memorial Day, I am third on the list and first is nearly already full. These would have cleared days in advance pre mid-March. I got used to being treated well by UA, and while I don’t expect free first class seats on every one of my 2-6 weekly UA flights, going 0 for the last 38 seems a mite ridiculous. Selling $100 upgrades seems to be a ridiculous reason for an airline to disenchant high revenue pax. Couple this with all of the other post merger BS, and I am divorcing the airline of my father and my hometown. While they could care less,l I now feel slightly better.

  23. Five year 1K, not because of any loyalty but because it’s the most convenient from LAX to my most frequent destinations. There is no reason to give airlines loyalty, the perks and benefits have all but evaporated in a era of snot-nosed gate and ticket agents, and surly flight attendants. Upgrading is a joke, with my average far below 50%. I just checked in for a flight to Chicago and the upgraded list already shows four sets of two with the same last name. While I might venture to guess that one of those sets of two (at most) are both 1K flyers, my money is on the companions without status, but a higher fare, taking precedence. That’s BS. That’s also why I’m switching to American, where companions have to pay. Bottom line, get on the plane, shut up and get to the destination, there’s no fun, there’s no joy, there’s no glamour, there’s no pleasure in the experience of traveling by air. And if it wasn’t clear in the earlier comments, it’s all about the universally nasty attitude of airline employees. I’m sure that attitude starts in Smisek’s Wacker Drive office.

  24. As an ex US Airways employee through college, I learned first hand how horrible the Upgrade process was for Dividend Mileage elites (other than Chairman). Now that I am on the other side of the table, everything is a revenue game. United in my mind essentially is replacing the companion payments for upgrades with the option to buy up. Think about this from United’s perspective:

    Would you rather have a half full 737-800 from EWR to CLT with 2 1k’s companions paying 200 bucks to move up (just guessing on the number) OR give 132 people the option to upgrade for $125 a pop. The numbers lie in United’s favor….AND I HATE IT.

    Unfortunately United (legacy continental guy) got me young….I have 200k Lifetime miles, do I stick it out and try to hit the 4mil mark or do I move to another airline and status match. And I commute from EWR-CLT/GSP every weekend, so all Embraer 170’s with 6 seats up front.


  25. 3 yr 1K and will earn again in 2012. I have 1.8 mil miles, so wife enjoys same status as me, permanent gold or 1K if I earn higher level. At 2 mil, we get permanent Platinum. She upgrades at same priority as me. Her MP account says she is 1K/SA Gold but she does not get the other benefits like 100% bonus.

    I have luxury of picking flt times, so I look for ones with more FC seats still there. So far, I would guess I am 90+% on UDUs. My issue is international using SWUs. Recently flew to Beijing on tkt bought in Mar 12. W/L in both directions. Return cleared in May 12. Outbound cleared 30 minutes before departure on 6 Oct. There were more than 95% of BC seats open in Mar on all flights and still as many open on outbound as on return when return cleared, but they never cleared Beijing until flight time. I was #4 and they had 5 seats open although preflight info showed BC had 1 seat left. Had already burned the SWU on flt from LAS-SFO, so I was glad it wasn’t wasted. I called 1K line and was told seat control agents had not released UG seats like they did on the return legs. I am sure some UGs were honored from W/L but no way to validate.

  26. Like many of you I am beyond frustrated with the upgrade practices of the new Untied. If you are a 1k flyer I would encourage you to send an email to 1kvoice@united.com, a real person will respond within 2 days. They need to hear from US!!!

  27. I’m at almost 2 million miles on United, multi-year 1k. Since the merger, my upgrade percentage has dropped dramatically… I leave for Sydney on Friday with a Q fare and can’t even get an upgrade using my systemwide certificate that I applied almost two weeks before departure. I live near Denver, so AA isn’t really an option, but I’m beginning to think Delta might be worth a look.

  28. Just had a long discussion over several days with United. Flew on Monday EWR to SAN. Put in for a regional upgrade. When I checked in Sunday, I did not get on the upgrade list. Called. They said there is a glitch and the Regional Upgrade requests get cancelled at check in if not confirmed. They put me on the list and I was #8 with a RU and 1K. Looked at reservation later and say I was on as a CPU. Callled back as the RU is supposed to give better stastus. They changed it and I DROPPED to #12 on the list. By the time of the flight, I was #20 out of 46.

    There is still a 1K service desk. You have to ask to be connected and it has to be in regards to reporting a problem. They are only open weekdays and normal business hours.

    On the flight back tonight, there were 3 unbooked seats, but as usual they offfered them at low prices to people who would pay for them, so now, only 15 hours from flight it is fully booked. I recently flew from POS and the guy in front of me bragged about getting an $85 upgrade the morning of the flight to IAH.

    Switching to Delta next year after 2M miles with United.Probably no better but the planes and flight attendants are nicer.

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