United Mileage Plus: Playing the Averages

For years, frequent flier miles have been a hot topic among regular travelers who are constantly traversing the world aboard passenger aircraft. What could be better? When you travel with a specific airline, you earn miles toward free future travel. Unfortunately, however, this is not all that it is cracked up to be.

The Big Six airlines (American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways) have experienced dissention among their frequent fliers since a recent boost in travel, now that the panic after 9/11 has dissipated. It is becoming increasingly difficult for members of frequent flier programs to redeem their miles, as there are few spare seats available.

In what appears to be an attempt to pacify these customers, while still benefiting the company, United Airlines has made significant changes to its frequent flier program, called Mileage Plus. In a press release dated April 14, United outlined these changes as “benefits” to their customers, though the actual alterations appear far from beneficial.

Talk about putting a positive spin on a negative change!

“More Availability”

United Airlines states in their press release and on their website that they will be reserving a “percentage” of seats on each domestic and international flight for Mileage Plus customers. Nowhere in the media does it state exactly what this “percentage” will be; this suggests to me that the change will be nominal.

This seems to be a growing trend among businesses and statistics. If a company makes a statement without giving specifics, the general public will assume that it is beneficial.

In a plane with three hundred seats, one percent of that amount would be a grand total of three seats, which even spread out among all United flights will not make much of a difference to the more than one million Mileage Plus members.

Mileage Increases

In an attempt to “square up” with Continental, Delta and Northwest, United as increased the amount of miles necessary to redeem tickets for several of their domestic destinations. For example, it now costs 50,000 miles for the domestic Economy Standard Award redemption, a 10,000 mile increase from what it was before.

It is true that United has consistently beaten the other Big Six airlines in redemption miles, but in an attempt to recover costs lost from this practice, they are beginning to increase their total miles required for redeeming free travel. This will pose a problem for both business and pleasure travelers who have been saving miles for specific trips or vacations around the world.

Short Haul Becomes Shorter

The Short-Haul award program through United Airlines is comparable to other promotional offers by the Big Six, which offers restricted round-trip airfare for frequent fliers by using 15,000 (750 each way) reward miles.

United, however, has placed a new (lower) ceiling on their Short-Haul Saver award program by limiting these flights to 14,000 miles round-trip, decreasing the number of available destinations.

Added Fees

Another part of the changes United Airlines will be implementing as of October 16, 2006, is the addition of penalty fees for booking award tickets close-in. If a frequent flyer books his or her flight within one week of departure, the fee will be $75; booking between one week and two weeks of departure will incur a cost of $50.00.

This might make sense when concerning overnight ticket delivery, but this particular set of fees seems unrelated to any costs incurred by United Airlines other than to further charge their customers.

Global Services and 1K members will be exempt from these fees.

For the Customers

This is entirely a question of ethics. Frequent flyer customers – members of the Mileage Plus program – have been operating under the same awards system for several years, and will now have to rethink their mileage accounts.

Will there be enough miles to take that vacation in November? And will you remember to book your flight at least two weeks in advance to avoid a surcharge for a flight you have already earned?

United Airlines will have to face the fact that they will lose customers based on these new changes, regardless of the “benefits” they claim to have imposed. Hopefully, Mileage Plus customers will see this for what it is: a blatant attempt at increasing revenue with little regard for the people who have continued to make United Airlines one of the Big Six.

Read more reviews for United Mileage Plus Visa Card and the Club Card for the extra elite touch.