Big changes are coming to the way in which elite travelers on United Airlines use airline upgrades. Later this year, the Chicago-based carrier is moving to an accrual-based system called PointsPlus that charges passengers points for regional or domestic upgrades.

Interestingly, the points system is almost exactly like the certificate system that United uses. Instead of earning two regional and six global upgrades when reaching 100,000 annual traveled miles per year, for example, now travelers get 280 points. In most cases it costs 40 points for an international upgrade from economy to business and 20 points for a domestic upgrade — so the allocated points cleanly match the former upgrade system.

Why the change then? In part, it’s because of the flexibility afforded by the system. By using points, travelers can decide how they want to split up regional versus domestic upgrades. Lower-tier elites, who will also earn points upon reaching a status tier, can also be judicious with how their upgrades are spent.

But there’s also a possible upside baked in for United. By using a points system, the airline now has better capability to segment its audiences and deliver targeted upgrades to the right passengers, not unlike the way it now prices award seats — potentially streamlining loyalty revenue. It’s also not hard to think of a future in which the PointsPlus system becomes more of a traded currency: Earn 10 PointsPlus points by signing up for the MileagePlus credit card! American and Delta are surely watching closely.

— Grant Martin, Business of Loyalty Editor 

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Grant Martin [gm@skift.com] curates the Skift Business of Loyalty newsletter. He is also a director of product marketing at TripActions. Skift emails the newsletter every Monday.

Photo Credit: ExpressJet regional jets lined up on their respective ramps. United launched a new points-based system for upgrading MileagePlus members. ExpressJet