Around the time Delta was in the process of swallowing Northwest Airlines in the mid-2000s, elite customers at the outgoing airline were getting anxious.

Worried about passengers defecting to competing airlines before the Delta transition was complete, Northwest’s management made a quiet decision to start upgrading top-tier elite frequent fliers through a secret, unpublished channel, increasing customer satisfaction and boosting loyalty in the process.

Last week, United kicked off a similar program. First reported by Brian Sumers, the Surprise and Delight campaign aims to upgrade some elite passengers on domestic flights from economy to the premium cabin and others on international flights from Business First to Global First. The upgrade mechanism will be outside of the typical elite upgrade process and will be confirmed separately, without upgrade certificates.

Criteria for inclusion in the program have not been published beyond being a member of the Mileage Plus program, but it’s safe to say that United is reserving this campaign for high value (most profitable) customers on routes with extra upgrade inventory. No other details have been published about the program on United’s website or on its social channels, but a spokesman did confirm the program’s existence, saying “it’s another way in which we reward our most-loyal customers.”

As to the motivations behind the program, United’s current situation is not as dramatic as Northwest’s ingest into Delta Air Lines, but they have plenty of reasons to make their current elite customers happier. Among the three legacy US carriers, United trails its competition by several points in ontime arrivals and departures; the airline’s CEO stepped down earlier this month amidst a New York Port Authority scandal; and Mileage Plus, United’s loyalty program, is working with a new revenue-based loyalty mechanism that’s showing many legacy elite passengers to the door.

Even it’s CEO admits that things are bad at the airline to its employees.

Facing even more competition from the likes of Delta — that now upgrades elite passengers to private jets — United needed its own program to retain premium travelers and keep them loyal. Surprise and Delight should scratch that itch for now, but ultimately, United will have to prove its worthiness through on time flights and a high quality product.

Photo Credit: New business class seats from United Airlines and supplier PriestmanGoode. United Airlines