United Airlines Revamps Mileage Plus for 2015 – Leisure Travelers Cry into Pillows

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Once again it appears I’ve shown up to the bar just as happy hour has ended.  Ben Mutzabaugh of USA Today recently reported that United Airlines has revamped the Mileage Plus® program for 2015.  The new program will award points to travelers based on the fares of their tickets; not miles traveled.

While this change will benefit business and first class passengers who often pay outrageous sums of money to travel in comfort, it will almost certainly penalize leisure travelers such as myself.  Since our recent relocation to Japan, my wife and I decided to make a commitment to fly United whenever possible as Tokyo Narita (NRT) is a United hub.  United offers the most consistent and competitively priced flights from NRT to the United States and I was relieved that we would finally have a reliable overseas carrier compared to the hodge podge we had flying out of Frankfurt.

According to Mutzabaugh, the new system will award 5 points to entry level customers for every dollar spent on participating United Airlines flights.  Travelers who earn an elite status will receive higher point multipliers for every dollar spent.  Before we look at any analysis it should be clear that the beneficiaries of the new system will be corporate business travelers and those who frequently fly short distances.

So how will this change impact infrequent, long distance travelers such as myself?

Later this month I will be flying from Japan to Florida by way of Newark.  The return leg of my trip will be through Denver and slightly longer in terms of distance traveled.  Under the current Mileage Plus program I will earn 8,288 miles for my departing flight and 8,599 for my returning flight, for a total of 16,887 miles earned.  My wife and I are likely to make this trip twice a year, giving us each a total over 33,000 miles for the calendar year; enough to earn Premier Silver® status.

Unfortunately for us, and most likely many others, the 2015 changes to the Mileage Plus program will result in a greatly diminished return.  

The round trip from Japan to Florida I referenced earlier cost roughly $1,900 with an Economy Plus® seat upgrade.  As I do not yet have Premier Silver® status with United, I would only earn 5 points (miles) for every dollar spent, bringing my grand total to 9,500 points.  The resulting figure is approximately 56% of what I would have earned under the old system, or to look at it another way, a 44% reduction in rewards.  As a Premier Silver® customer I would earn 7 points per dollar spent, resulting in 13,300 reward points (79% of the original figure).

So clearly the proposed changes to the Mileage Plus program suck for me, but what about everybody else?

The clear beneficiaries of the proposed changes are frequent business travelers whose companies are willing to pony up the cash for business class tickets.  As the prices of business class tickets fluctuate wildly, I am not going to bother with an exact dollar figure for examination.  Using Mutzabaugh’s figures of the new program, we can estimate how frequent business travelers are likely to benefit under the new rules.

Premier Gold®, Premier Platinum®, and Premier 1k® customers will respectively earn 8, 9, and 11 miles per dollar spent.  A round trip ticket from New York to Los Angeles is approximately 5,000 miles.  A business class ticket costing $1,500 roundtrip will result in 12,000, 13,500 and 16,500 points respectively.  It should be noted that I am not taking into account any previous multipliers for Premier status customers – I am simply providing the figures under the new system rules.  

In other words, the customers United Airlines depends upon for frequent business will likely benefit from the proposed changes to the Mileage Plus program while infrequent travelers will suffer considerably.  Infrequent travelers who travel great distances will suffer the most.  Sucks for me I guess.

I do not begrudge United for making these changes but I can’t help but bitch and moan about the unfortunate timing.  I feel especially sorry for those maniacs who go on “mileage runs” to achieve status points – I cannot imagine how the proposed changes are in any way positive for you guys.  

Sadly, I have always found Mileage Plus to be one of the more user friendly rewards programs out there.  In fact, I was able to book a round trip ticket to Las Vegas for a modest amount of points a few years ago.  For now I will stick with United until a worthy alternative surfaces but I hope all of the brains behind Mileage Plus realize that they made a full grown man shed a few tears.

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