United's MileagePlus program is changing dramatically in 2020 to focus more on high-spend rather than high-mileage travelers. Translation: It's getting harder for frugal flyers to be elite.
A new era of airline loyalty programs has arrived. United Airlines announced this week that the criteria for elite qualification in its MileagePlus loyalty program would change dramatically next year. Starting in January of 2020, United’s loyalty members will earn elite status based on Premier Qualifying Flights and Premier Qualifying Segments only. Flight miles, the traditional metric by which frequent flyers used to earn status, are no longer going to be considered.
It wasn’t too long ago that frequent flyers on American, Delta, and United earned elite status based solely on how far they fly. If a passenger flew 100,000 miles or 100 segments on any of the carriers, for example, top-tier (published) status was awarded, yielding perks such as upgrades, free checked bags, and free seat assignments.
In 2013, however, that formula changed when Delta introduced qualifying dollars to its equation for calculating for elite status. From that point forward, frequent flyers needed to earn a baseline number of miles or segments and also spend a companion amount of cash — up to $15,000 for the top published tier — to earn the same status as before. American and United quickly followed suit leaving only Alaska with its legacy earning structure.
Now United is taking the mileage out of the equation. MileagePlus members next year will earn status based on both Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) or Premier Qualifying Flights (PQFs) along with PQPs. Premier Qualifying Points, which are effectively the same as Premier Qualifying Dollars in the current MileagePlus economy, are earned on a 1:1 basis as a function of how much is spent on a ticket (exclusive of taxes).
The big difference in the 2021 MileagePlus program is that passengers will be able to earn elite status based on only PQPs (along with a minimum of four segments) — and the top published 1K status will move from requiring $15,000 in annual spend to $24,000. If a traveler wants to qualify based on PQPs and PQFs together, top-tier status can be earned with 54 flights and $18,000 in spend.
As with any loyalty program, there are also loopholes to earning status. Specific to the 2021 MileagePlus program, travelers will now be able to earn PQPs for supplemental spending like upgrades, while partner flights on all Star Alliance carriers — including those booked and operated outside of United.com — will also earn.
Despite the potentially lucrative channels, it’s hard to avoid the fact that the minimum spend for earning elite status on United is going up — even at the lowest tier, which is moving from $3,000 required in annual spend up to $4,000. And that may be intentional. Since United adopted the model of using spend criteria to earning elite status, the threshold for top-tier status has gone up — first from $12,000 annually to $15,000. With that top number now at $24,000, United is firmly saying that it wants to reserve its best elite benefits for its most lucrative travelers.
Grant Martin [[email protected]] curates the Skift Business of Loyalty newsletter. He is also a director of product marketing at TripActions. Skift emails the newsletter every Monday.
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Photo credit: A United Airlines jet. United Airlines