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United Revolutionizes the World of Airline Elite Status

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United made a dramatic change to the way MileagePlus members qualify for elite status. The changes go into effect on January 1 and are applied to earning for status in 2021. This may turn out to be one of the most important stories of the year, depending on how it works out and whether other airlines adopt it—or it could become an embarrassing boondoggle. Here are the essentials:

Miles Earned No Longer Count Toward Elite Status on United

 You heard that correctly: miles are no longer in the picture. Beginning in January, status will be determined by the number of flight segments plus the amount of money spent, or merely on spending alone. Each segment will become a PQS (Premier Qualifying Segment), and each dollar spent on a United ticket will become a PQP (Premier Qualifying Point).

The Cost of Elite Status Is Going Up

Starting next year, these are the requirements to become a United elite:

  • Silver: 12 PQF and 4,000 PQP, or 5,000 PQP.
  • Gold: 24 PQF and 8,000 PQP, or 10,000 PQP.
  • Platinum: 36 PQF and 12,000 PQP, or 15,000 PQP.
  • Premier 1K: 54 PQF and 18,000 PQP, or 24,000 PQP.

By contrast, the requirements for the four elite levels on both AA and Delta are currently $3,000/$6,000/$9,000/$15,000.

International Flights on Partner Airlines Now Count

United elites were previously unable to earn Premier Qualifying Dollars for international flights on Star Alliance partners. Now those flights will earn PQPs. To determine the number of PQPs, divide by six (unless the flight is on ANA, Air Canada, Copa or Lufthansa, in which case divide by five). Some bloggers are touting this as a big plus, or even as a revival of the mileage run, but it’s hard to see how either of those things are true. If you (or your company) is in a position to shell out $10,000 for a premium cabin on a United flight, you earn 10,000 PQPs; that same flight on Lufthansa nets you 2,000.

Credit Card Spending Is Now Less Rewarding

Previously, spending $25,000 or more on United credit cards earned you a waiver from the PQD requirement. Going forward, you can earn 500 PQPs for the first $12,000 in credit card spend and another 500 for the next $12,000, but that’s it. Strangely enough, the meager return on credit card spending doesn’t even benefit flyers chasing 1K status—it only applies to Platinum level and below.

Other Ways to Earn PQPs

You can also boost your PQP totals by purchasing Economy Plus seating, Preferred seating, paid upgrades or MileagePlus Upgrade Award co-pays.

Upgrades for Top Elites Are Now More Difficult

Previously, United Platinum and 1K members earned Regional Premier Upgrades and Global Premier Upgrades. That system was recently changed to Points Plus, which grants top elites points they can use toward upgrades. Now Points Plus has been devalued: for spending above the 1K threshold, elites will now receive half the number of points.

Who Benefits From the New Requirements?

It’s hard to see how anyone does (except United, of course). For occasional or semi-frequent flyers, the new stringent rules make it difficult to qualify for elite status at all. The only person it might benefit is someone who formerly met the spending requirement but didn’t fly the necessary number of miles, and the number of those travelers is limited. There are commentators who have suggested the new requirements will result in far more elites, but that doesn’t seem likely. It’s very possible there will be less, since trying to qualify seems futile unless you live near a United hub.

Could It Possibly Be Any More Complicated?

Not really, unless the new rules were printed in Urdu, Swahili or Esperanto.

Increasingly, more and more loyalty programs are becoming revenue-based. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, provided the rules are straightforward and transparent (JetBlue is a good example). You have to wonder, though, about the motivations behind all the complex twists and turns in the new United program.

What Effect Will This Have, Industry-Wide?

This is the key question. Will this program be quickly adopted by American and Delta? The traditional pattern among the big three has been that an increase by one has quickly turned into an increase by all. Remember that the frequent flyer programs at American and Delta were identical to United prior to this upheaval.

There’s also the real possibility that the United strategy will backfire. The whole point of a loyalty program is encouraging customers to spend more and go out of their way to use your brand. There was a time when that was true, when frequent flyers would pay a bit more or accept an extra connection to rank higher on their preferred airline’s elite scale. In recent years, United has almost doubled the requirements for elite status while giving customers no additional benefits (or even curtailing them). We’ll find out if that strategy will succeed over the long term.

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