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Last week, after a long trip to Asia on United, a colleague came into my office and showed his United mileage balance to me.
Most legs on his trip had earned the standard two or four thousand miles, but one leg in particular stood out: a very short trip that earned 8,000 miles.
My colleague thought that a mistake had been made. In reality, he was profiting from the new rules just instituted by United’s new MileagePlus program. The changes, announced last year, went into effect on March 1st and dramatically effect how passengers earn miles — effectively assigning them based on the cost of the ticket multiplied by the passenger’s elite status.
In this case, my colleague spent a great deal of cash on a last-second ticket and reaped an enormous bank of miles. Other MileagePlus members, however, have not been as happy with their harvests. So they’re turning to partner Star Alliance carriers to which they can assign their miles.
Each member of the 27-member Star Alliance has its own rules for mileage accrual on partner airlines, but at large, most still assign miles based on distance-flown versus cost-of-ticket. In addition to that, many have great elite benefits such as two year status accrual (so you don’t need to requalify every year) and international lounge access (so you can visit a United lounge when flying in the US).
Naturally there are drawbacks. Relying on status from a Star Alliance partner means that United fliers forfeit upgrades, though one could argue that those are difficult to pin down anyway. Dealing with international programs and call centers can also be a problem; another colleague of mine just switched to Turkish Airlines for their easy status-match program and a two-year elite cycle, but their phone agents are nearly impossible to understand.
Still, those challenges haven’t stopped many from changing their loyalty. Singapore Airlines, a Star Alliance partner with English-speaking phone agents and healthy partner accrual tables, has been shared by many as an excellent alternative to United’s MileagePlus. Thai Airways is reportedly another decent option. And with status match options on the table, it’s easier than ever to quickly change loyalty.
In the end, this migration away from MileagePlus will end up providing exactly what both the airline and its customers need. Swollen with elites, MileagePlus will soon be slimmed down to only the most loyal and lucrative passengers, while those unhappy with the program will either defect or be either eliminated altogether. In the meantime, the bloodletting will continue.