United Airlines frequent flier program to reward price, not distance

United Airlines has restructured its MileagePlus program so that members earn points based on dollars spent, not miles flown. The United Airlines change is good for corporate fliers who take short, expensive trips but leaves most leisure travelers with less point-redeeming power. 

Nam Y. Huh/AP/File
Travelers check in at the United Airlines ticket counter at Terminal 1 in O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. Starting March 2015, elite members of United’s MileagePlus will earn between seven and 11 miles for every dollar they spend on tickets, not counting taxes. Regular members – those who fly less than 25,000 miles and spend less than $2,500 a year – will get five miles per dollar toward free travel.

United Airlines has become the latest US carrier to restructure its frequent-flier program, and this tweak rewards price, not distance.

Beginning in March 2015, members of United Airlines’ MileagePlus program will earn points based on the price of a ticket, including money spent on both fare and surcharges like baggage handling. Additionally, members who have earned premium status are eligible for even more points per dollar spent.

"These changes are designed to more directly recognize the value of our members when they fly United," Thomas F. O'Toole, United's senior vice president of marketing and loyalty and president of MileagePlus, said in the company press statement announcing the change. "We are also pleased to give our members new redemption options that expand the usefulness of their MileagePlus miles."

Going forward, MileagePlus members will earn five points for every dollar spent on airfare; those with “MileagePlus Premier” status can earn between seven and 11 points, depending on their status levels.

“The new earning structure will apply to MileagePlus members worldwide for most tickets for travel on United and United Express flights, and most United-issued tickets for flights on the company's airline,” the company announcement reads. “Members may earn up to 75,000 award miles per ticket.”

The change is nearly identical to Delta’s restructuring of its SkyMiles program, which also rewards passengers who spend more money over passengers that fly longer distances. Some in the frequent flier community have criticized major airlines for the changes.

“Airlines are big copycats when it comes to negative changes and it looks like United and their un-creative folks in the MileagePlus program are proving that once again,” Brian Kelley, author of the popular mileage blog “The Points Guy,” wrote in response. “This change is good for those of your who spend huge amounts on tickets and fly shorter distances. For the general traveler, this is a reduction in value earned from the program…I’m pretty confident that most people are not on the winning end of the equation.”

It’s yet another knock for United, which isn’t exactly beloved by passengers in the first place. In an annual passenger satisfaction survey released in April by the American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), United ranked a distant sixth out of six American air carriers. The airline’s 2010 merger with Continental “appears to play a role here,” the ACSI study said; United passengers experienced “frequent and continual problems with reservations and refunds three years after the merger.”

Delta, meanwhile, improved its customer satisfaction rating significantly, even after the mileage change.

Though passengers may be complaining about United, investors are not. Shares of parent company United Continental Holdings, Inc. (UAL) closed up 2.98 percent on Tuesday. 

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