Why the 2011 United/Continental Elite Program Isn't the End of the World

Reading some of the responses on Flyertalk today after United announced changes to the Mileage Plus program for 2011, you would think the world was coming to an end.

Relax. I'm not happy about the changes either, but we may have dodged a bullet and the changes are really not that bad.

Here's a summary of the changes, courtesy of One Mile at a Time:

  • Elite qualifying miles from Continental and United will be merged at the end of 2011 to count towards elite status with the combined airline. In other words, if you earn 50,000 elite qualifying miles next year on Continental and 50,000 elite qualifying miles on United, you’ll earn the top tier status.
  • In the past, 1Ks earned two confirmed regional upgrades for every quarter in which they fly at least 10,000 miles on United, for a maximum of eight per year. Now members earn two confirmed regional upgrades for passing 75,000 elite qualifying miles, and another two for every 25,000 elite qualifying miles earned beyond that, with no maximum.
  • 1K will still require 100,000 elite qualifying miles, though they have upped the segments required from 100 to 120.
  • Continental systemwide upgrades now have the same fare class requirement that United has.
  • 6 SWUs will now be posted when you cross the 100,000 mile EQM threshold, rather than at the start of the calendar year.
  • United is creating a quasi-elite tier for those that earn 75,000 elite qualifying miles, giving them upgrade priority over other Premier Executive members.
  • Continental’s Presidential Platinum program will be merged into United’s Global Services program.

United aptly outlines these changes on a web page entitled, "Updates to the Mileage Plus program and how they may benefit you." (emphasis added) 

First, let's look at who's hurt:

1K segment flyers

There's no denying that they took the biggest hit today. I doubt any of these flyers are happy about having to fly 20% more segments next year.

1Ks who travel 100,001-149,999 miles each year

Rather than earning two confirmed regional upgrades (CR-1s) per quarter for traveling 10,000 miles, two CR-1s will only be earned after you earn 75,000 EQMs, with two more being awarded for every 25,000 EQMs earned above 75K. Another problem might be that with all SWUs being deposited once you pass 100K (rather than on 01/01), you might not be able to allocate them quickly enough. Currently, you can request SWUs early if you surpass 100K EQMs, but can hold out till January if you won't have an earlier use for them. I know that either way you'll still have a year to use them, but the current arrangement does allow for a bit more flexibility.

Premier Executive Million Milers who travel less than 75,000 miles each year

These Million Milers now move from third tier (behind Global Services and 1K members) to fourth tier (behind 75K über Premier Execs) when it comes to upgrade priority. It is not clear yet whether MMers will still receive two CR-1s at the end of each year. Thankfully, United hasn't *yet* eliminated lifetime Star Gold status for those who surpass the MM lifetime flight miles on UA. Lucky should be OK.

Premier Executives who travel less than 75,000 miles each year

1Ps who dont make the 75K threshold will now see their upgrade opportunities chances scaled back.


Poor Premiers. At least with the old e-500 mile upgrade program the Premiers had a chance. Yes, I know that occasionally they'll get an upgrade, say on a mid-week HNL flight or an offbeat flight ex-TPA, but with an extra UA tier and Continental flyers now competing for the same limited upgrade inventory, Premiers better enjoy Economy Plus...while it lasts.


Who's helped by the changes announced today?

1Ks who fly 150,000 miles or more each year

These 1Ks will still still earn the same number of CR-1s as before and have the chance to earn unlimited amounts of them for each additional 25,000 EQMs they earn on United.

Premier Executives who fly 75,000 miles or more each year

A move indicating an alignment with CO's current top-tier elite level, these Premier Execs will now have a better chance at an upgrade than they're fellow 1Ps who don't quite make it up to 75K. This means a Premier Exec who flies 75,001 miles each year has a higher spot on the upgrade list on an K-fare than a Premier Exec who flies 74,999 miles each year and is on a full-fare Y ticket. Plus, 1Ps will now earn two CR-1s, which come in very handy on p.s. flights between JFK and LAX/SFO.


The Future of Mileage Plus:

With 1Ks now having fly 120 segments instead of 100, I am going to predict here that in 2012 we will see the following four tiers:

  • 25,000 miles - Premier
  • 50,000 miles - Premier Executive
  • 75,000 miles - Premier Platinum
  • 120,000 miles - 1K
  • Revenue - Global Services

And I can't say that I would be opposed to such an arrangement. Thankfully, there was not double EQM promotion this year and the 1K ranks should be smaller next year. But there are still too many and creating a higher threshold (a-la Delta Diamond status) for qualification might mean that I'll finally start getting upgrades on those transcon flights.

Watch very closely to see if United begins to mimic Continental's first class upsell policy in the months to come. While none of the news today even makes me think about jumping ship, if UA adopts CO's upgrade tactics I would have to reconsider.

For those not aware, CO offers instant elite upgrade for those who purchase Y/B/M tickets. Sometimes these tickets aren't that much more than the cheaper economy tickets and CO aggressively hawks upsells when you're purchasing the ticket, anytime before the flight online, and again at airport kiosks. And they don't charge a change fee for the upsell either. While I credit CO for turning a profit this quarter, this policy does not bode well for the way I travel. If UA pulled a similar trick, I know I would see myself in the back a lot more than I do now.  


How today's changes affect me: 

Not much. I've got 5 regional upgrades in my account now because I just can't use them! As I recently shared, my upgrades haven't been clearing at all lately on A319 transcons, but I can't even use a CR-1 on these flights because there is never any NF (confirmable upgrade) space available. Sure, I won't be able to upgrade family members as often next year, but they'll survive. I certainly have in economy class the last few trips.

As for the early deposit of the SWUs: Meaningless to me. I get more of those then I can use too.

For reasons that I'll explain at a later time, next year is going to be extremely difficult for me to re-qualify for 1K status on United. I'll find a way to do it, but its going to be much, much harder than the last few years.

Many on FT have threatened to abandon CO/UA for American Airlines next year. Please do.


Marcus November 16, 2010 at 09:52 pm

I don't really understand socking it to the segment fliers.

@Marcus: I wouldn't have done it for 2011, though I would have announced now that starting in 2012 1K status will only be earned after 120K EQM/120 EQS.

Marcus November 16, 2010 at 09:57 pm

That would make more sense to me. Up the EQM as well as EQS. But just EQS? Seems strange.

As for me, as a 100,001-149,999 mile flyer living i the New York area, this is going to suck. My main use of CR-1s are on ps routes. I'll be rerouting LGA-ORD-LAX now instead of JFK-LAX. Not a huge deal, but I do prefer the nonstop and better hard product of ps.

@Marcus: Have you ever scored op-ups on p.s. flights? With so few Y seats and so many in C/F, it seems like elites would get bumped up more than on other routes.

Marcus November 16, 2010 at 10:03 pm

Luckily I've never tried - I've always had enough CR-1s in the bank that I could apply them before travel.

One thing about ps and the small Y cabin though: if you don't get upgraded you can end up in a crappy seat. Currently my wife and I are waitlisted for an upcoming LAX-JFK flight and we both have middles. No other available seats in the Y cabin. :(

@Marcus: That's true about Y seats--not even an exit row you can grab...

Marcus November 16, 2010 at 10:15 pm

Slightly OT (OK, a lot OT): We're staying at the LAX crowne plaza and are going to a wedding at the hilton universal city. Thoughts on how long to budget getting there via car on a saturday for a 3pm wedding?

Ah, that's not a bad trip. I would budget 55 minutes, though you'll probably make it in 35.

Take 405 to 101. Get off at Lankershim.

Marcus November 16, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Oh wow, I thought the answer was going to be 2 hours or something atrocious. Gracias for the help!

Just check 405 traffic before you go. If there's a huge accident, you'll have to factor in some more time, but as a former UCLA student and frequent traveler ex-LAX, I take that route quite often and have rarely found it stacked on early Saturday afternoon.

@Matthew: Your 2012 tier structure makes a hell of a lot of sense (hello Delta?), but I hope 1K remains at 100,000. I like the Premier Platinum name!

You're not kidding about the difficulty next year for 1K!

@Marcus... I'll second Matthew's timeline for the 405 on a Saturday afternoon. Spot on.

Gary November 17, 2010 at 10:13 am

My note to United.

Yesterday you announced the "Benefits" of the 2011 1K program. As a "benefit" you raised the number of segments for qualification from 100 to 120, a 25% increased "benefit". Nice way to screw your most loyal customers. Nice marketing message of the "benefits". I have an even better suggestion for you. Raise the segments and mileage to 1,000,000 and make the benefit free travel on UA. That way no one will qualify and it won't cost you a darn thing. And way to go rewarding the loyalty of Continentals top fliers. Their's increased from 90 to 120 segments. I'd bet that they are really enjoying the 'benefits' of being part of United. This is a bonehead move that I would have expected from Glenn Tilton but not Jeff Smisek. Clearly the message from UA is screw the loyalty. Stupid, Stupid, STUPID!

Marcus November 22, 2010 at 09:36 am

Just want to note that Matthew's 35 minutes was spot on. Made the trip in exactly that.

Was amused by the "severe weather event" that was rain and temps in the 40s this past weekend. :)

@Marcus: I love the freak weather in So. Cal!

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