Among the updates to its loyalty program posted on Friday, United Airlines announced that that the criteria for earning top-tier elite status in its Mileage Plus program will be going up.
For the 2019 travel year, United’s spend (or qualifying dollar) requirement for earning top-tier 1K elite status is moving from $12,000 to $15,000 annually, a 25 percent increase. Flown miles, the other requirement for earning 1K status, is remaining the same at 100,000 annually.
Passengers who earn elite status on any of the three big legacy air carriers are treated to a variety of perks including free upgrades, waived change fees, and complimentary checked bags.
In moving the spend threshold up by 25 percent, United Airlines is effectively matching the product that Delta Air Lines offers to its top-tier or Diamond level elites. Only American Airlines, the largest carrier in the United States by passenger volume, has its threshold still set at $12,000 for top-tier Executive Platinum status.
Several years back when legacy airlines started including a spend threshold for earning elite status, many loyalty program members decried the changes, citing the difficulty in spending that much money on air travel over a 12-month period. Many budget and leisure travelers, for example, often purchase bargain-basement fares that don’t accrue qualifying dollars nearly as quickly as an expensive business class fare might, creating, in effect, a barrier to those passengers earning elite status.
Airlines, however, see the change as necessary. By adding a spending threshold for elite status, airlines can guarantee that their most valuable (or deep-pocketed) customers are getting the best treatment as possible while those that add the least revenue to the equation get de-prioritized. By putting its top-tier spending threshold at $15,000, or 25 percent higher than United and American, Delta effectively made its top-tier elites into a more exclusive club than its competitors. Now, United is trying to do the same thing.
In addition to the qualification changes, United is also decreasing the point bonuses awarded on some premium fares, making it even harder for some travelers to earn status. The full spectrum of changes, was posted on Friday to mileageplusupdates.com.
As to whether United’s Mileage Plus members will stomach the changes, the audience seems divided. Edward Tang, the CEO of Silicon Valley startup Avegant, travels regularly for work on the carrier and doesn’t see a problem with the changes. “The increased spend requirements doesn’t really impact my ability to earn status since I routinely spent that amount annually,” he said. “Whether United gets to keep my business really is a function of the quality of their product and the perks I receive as a frequent flyer. Plus the fact that I live near a United hub.”
Less-frequent travelers, however, aren’t so thrilled. Gary Stager, a university professor on Twitter, made his displeasure evident.
Hey @united, Your announced changes to Mileage Plus only benefit you and make it more likely that I will switch alliances sooner, rather than later. 1K, 2.5 million miler.
— Gary Stager, Ph.D. (@garystager) September 28, 2018
Ultimately, whether Untied’s changes stick may end up being a function of what its competitors bring to the table.
Delta and United can now compete on elite status tiers, but most agree that Delta’s superior flight experience makes it a better overall package. And if American – which is a closer product fit to United – leaves its elite tiers in place, many may find AAdvantage as a better solution. What’s more likely is that American will end up matching United’s changes in the coming months – but in the meantime, United’s value proposition for 1K status may no longer be as competitive.