Skift Take

United Airlines has a new head of loyalty starting this week at the same time that major changes are happening within the program.

United Airlines has a new boss coming for Mileage Plus, its loyalty program. Luc Bondar officially takes the reins from Praveen Sharma, the current vice president of loyalty, merchandising and digital channels at United Airlines on November 1. According to the blog View From the Wing, the news was shared internally and verified by corporate communications, though United has so far declined to comment directly.

Bondar comes from a rich loyalty marketing background spent primarily at Carlson Marketing Worldwide, part of the Carlson Companies hotel, restaurant, and travel empire. That marketing group was acquired by Montreal-based loyalty management company Groupe Aeroplan, which oversees Air Canada’s Aeroplan, in 2009. The Canadian company later changed its name to Aimia, where Bondar was senior vice president for the U.S. region until he left to join Index Computer Software in 2016. Air Canada’s contract with Aimia, of note, expires in 2020.

As Bondar begins his life at United, Mileage Plus itself will also be in transition. On November 1, United is introducing a new tier of awards called Everyday Awards, which flexibly price mileage tickets based on current market demand rather than a fixed award chart. Everyday Awards are being integrated alongside standard Saver and premium awards, but many think that they’re a first step toward an entirely revenue-based award chart that breathes with the market. Already, Delta Air Lines uses a similar model.

In addition to Everyday Awards, United is also shuffling the way that its inexpensive Saver Awards are priced on November 1, making some international and business class award tickets more expensive while other, regional flights are getting cheaper.

As these changes settle in, Bondar will need to balance feedback from the Mileage Plus community as well as contend with an airline and loyalty program that firmly trails competitors. Earlier this month, United’s stock slid more than 12 percent on news that the airline wasn’t competing well.

Along with American’s AAdvantage and Delta’s SkyMiles, Mileage Plus, too, has suffered in the last years as the pivot to revenue-based programs has inflamed and confused budget travelers. This year’s U.S. News & World Report airline rewards rankings placed United as number five in the country behind Delta and Southwest (American was ranked number six). Alaska Airlines, meanwhile, has been cleaning up rankings and the awards circuit with its distance-based loyalty program.

Even so, Mileage Plus has great strengths that Bondar may be able to highlight. As part of the Star Alliance, United has great access to international partners — particularly in Europe — that make Mileage Plus the preferred program in the U.S. for finding long-haul award availability.

Mileage Plus is also comparatively liberal with its award space (largely due to partner availability). Many have criticized American for its lack of award seats available through the year while they discard SkyMiles’ revenue-based awards as confusing and expensive.

As United begins to right its ship, Bondar may find a fatigued loyalty base tired of changes and strict revenue requirements. But he’s also got the tools to improve the program. While the market may dictate which direction Mileage Plus ultimately needs to move, Bondar has a great opportunity to make a good loyalty program even better.

— Grant Martin

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Tags: loyalty, united airlines

Photo credit: Luc Bondar is United's incoming VP of loyalty. LinkedIn

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