This is how United Airlines can improve MileagePlus for a post-COVID travel boom

Sep 25, 2020

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Some airlines have impressed me during the coronavirus pandemic and others have been a massive disappointment. For me, the most disappointing airline has been United Airlines. Once my airline of choice, it spent the coronavirus travel downturn devaluing its miles by removing partner award charts and capping the number of Premier Qualifying Points (PQP) that can be earned on partner flights.

These devaluations make United MileagePlus less appealing and factored into my decision to switch airline loyalty to Delta Air Lines. Plus, the timing couldn’t be worse: we’re in the middle of a pandemic and frequent travelers are grounded. United’s devaluations is like rubbing salt in a traveler’s wound.

But I get it: United is having a bad time too. Demand for travel is low and United is bleeding money, so it needs to cut expenses where it can. At the same time, devaluations have a lasting impact on the airline’s public image and make it less desirable for frequent travelers to fly United when leisure and — even more importantly — business travel resumes.

Related: Cash cow: Why loyalty programs are a lifeline for airlines and hotels during COVID

But I think United can right these wrongs by reversing some changes, adding benefits and otherwise giving loyal members a break. Here, I’ll outline a couple of changes that would make MileagePlus more desirable both during and after the coronavirus pandemic. I’ll also discuss why it makes sense for United to make these changes even if they make little financial sense right now.

Let’s get started.

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In This Post

Repeal the PQP limit for partner flights

Lufthansa A320 on the runway
(Photo by Markus Mainka/Shutterstock)

United limiting the number of PQP you can earn on partner flights was a huge hit for MileagePlus elite members. And frankly, the change doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. It doesn’t directly impact the airline’s bottom line, given PQP aren’t redeemable. Plus, international travel is almost nonexistent right now, so it was especially poor timing.

As a refresher, PQP are one of the metrics you can use to qualify for elite status. On United flights, they’re earned based on how much you spend on your flight before taxes, with $1 equaling 1 PQP. Partner flights are earned by dividing the number of redeemable miles earned on a ticket by 6 for most partners and 5 for Preferred Partners. Preferred partners include the following airlines:

  • Air Canada
  • Air China
  • Air Dolomiti
  • Air New Zealand
  • All Nippon Airways
  • Austrian Airlines
  • Avianca
  • Azul Brazilian Airlines
  • Brussels Airlines
  • Copa Airlines
  • Edelweiss
  • Eurowings
  • Lufthansa
  • SWISS International Airlines

In the past, there was no cap on the number of PQP you could earn on a single partner ticket. Nowadays, though, you’re limited to a cap based on the type of ticket you book.

Class of service Preferred partner PQP MileagePlus partner PQP
First and business 1,500 1,000
Economy and premium economy 750 500

This is a huge devaluation for those who frequently fly to destinations not served by United and MileagePlus members based abroad. It also makes earning United elite status more confusing. Moreso, this looks bad on United’s part — it shows that United is only concerned about making as much money as possible, not building longterm loyalty.

I’m not the only one that feels this way. TPG Travel Analyst Zach Griff recently wrote an article on why he’s reconsidering earning top-tier United elite status in future years. The partner PQP cap was listed as one of his draws away from the program, and I can only assume that other travelers feel the same.

United should repeal this cap for the 2021 status year. It will build confidence with United elites and encourage Star Alliance flyers to credit partner flights to United. This would raise funds and build further loyalty for United with new elite members. This is invaluable for United’s business going forward and would have me consider a switch back to United once travel resumes.

Related: How to earn United elite status for less by flying partner airlines

Launch official award sales

United Airlines Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner aircraft as seen on final approach landing at Amsterdam Schiphol AMS EHAM Airport in the Netherlands, on July 2, 2020, arriving from Newark EWR New York, NY, USA. The advanced wide body, modern and advanced airplane has the new livery paint scheme and the registration N12010 and 2x GE jet engines. United UA UAL is the third largest airline in the world and a member of Star Alliance aviation alliance. United is connecting US with Europe and the Netherlands with Cargo and passenger flight during the Covid-19 Coronavirus Pandemic period. (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
(Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

One of my favorite parts of the Delta SkyMiles program is its famous Flash Sales. These offer discounted tickets on specific routes for a set period. In the past, this has given us excellent deals like round-trip tickets to Europe for 16,000 SkyMiles and 5,000-mile domestic tickets on set routes.

United already discounts domestic tickets from time to time, but I’d like to see these become official sales. This would make cheap domestic award tickets a real benefit of the MileagePlus program and hopefully, we’ll see more of these on other routes as we start traveling again.

This would be good for United too. If the airline has low demand on certain routes, it can fill seats through limited-time sales. MileagePlus members would then be incentivized to transfer miles from Chase Ultimate Rewards or Marriott Bonvoy to top-up balances for an award, or outright buy miles to book. Both of these could be real revenue makers for United, all while filling otherwise empty planes.

Related: How to redeem miles with the United Airlines MileagePlus program

Implement standard award pricing

United Award Pricing EWR to FRA
(Image courtesy of United)

One of the biggest losses this year was United removing its partner award chart at the beginning of the pandemic. The cost of partner awards shot up by 10% or more across the board, even on connecting tickets with a short leg on partner carriers.

This one is a long-shot, but it would be an excellent way to get back on frequent flyers’ good sides. I’d like United to bring back some sort of award chart. While I wouldn’t count on a full-on standard chart, I think we could see a transition to a tier-based system.

We could see off-peak, standard and peak pricing for saver award tickets. For example, North America to Europe redemptions could cost 55,000 for off-peak, 60,000 for standard and 65,000 for on-peak saver awards. If this happens, I’d assume United would still add some type of surcharge for partner award tickets. Plus, award sales would still exist, giving United the freedom to offer low-cost domestic tickets.

These three levels would give United members a predictable way to book award tickets while still allowing United some wiggle room for changing prices. It would also encourage United members to continue redeeming miles on United instead of partners, which United is clearly pushing for in 2020.

Related: The Critical Points: This is why United is choosing to devalue MileagePlus now

Permanently increase credit card PQP earning

Getting added as an authorized user on my dad's United card helped boost my credit score right out of the gate. Photo by Isabelle Raphael / The Points Guy
(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

United raised the number of PQP you can earn with credit cards for the 2020 status-earning year. Typically, you can earn 500 PQP for every $12,000 spent on a United cobranded credit card, up to 1,000 PQP per year. This year, however, you can earn up to 2,000 PQP on the United Explorer card or 4,000 PQP on the United Club Infinite card.

As someone who likes to earn elite status with a credit card, I’d like to see these higher PQP-earning limits be extended indefinitely. It would make it easier for United credit cardholders to earn elite status and encourage spending on cobranded credit cards.

This would be good for both parties. United elites would benefit from the ease of earning status and United would earn revenue from additional credit card spend. This seems like a relatively easy way for United to earn more revenue through its credit card partnership.

Related: Here’s what airline loyalty programs might look like after coronavirus

Enhance PlusPoints in 2021

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

PlusPoints was introduced as a replacement to upgrade certificates last year. Premier Platinum, 1K and Global Services members earn these points upon qualification and when meeting specific flight thresholds throughout the year. You can redeem PlusPoints for regional and global upgrades on flights operated by United and select airline partners.

Here’s how many PlusPoints you’ll need for an upgrade on United:

  • Economy to domestic first or regional business: 20 PlusPoints
  • Economy to Premium Plus: 20 PlusPoints
  • Premium Plus to Polaris: 30 PlusPoints
  • Economy to Polaris (Y, B, M, E, U, H, Q, V, W): 40 PlusPoints
  • Economy to Polaris (S, T, L, K, G): 80 PlusPoints
  • Economy to Polaris (Skip Waitlist): 140 PlusPoints

I’d like to see United enhance PlusPoints for the 2021 status year with lower redemption rates. This would encourage elites to get back on the road and take advantage of their benefits. This would increase flight demand for United and give them a better public image. Likewise, United elites that choose to travel again will have a better experience when doing so.

It would also be nice to see more PlusPoints earning opportunities. Think promotions for bonus earning points and lower thresholds for earning. For reference, 1K and Global Services members currently earn 20 PlusPoints for every additional 3,000 PQP earned after qualifying. This would also increase the demand for United airfare and encourage existing elites to continue flying with United.

Related: How to request an elite upgrade with United PlusPoints

Upgrade its Marriott partnership

Marriott Marquis in Downtown Chicago
(Photo by Felix Mizioznikov/Shutterstock)

Finally, United can make a difference for MileagePlus elites now by beefing up its Marriott partnership. Dubbed RewardsPlus, United and Marriott offer reciprocal benefits for each other’s members. You can transfer miles between United and Marriott Bonvoy points. Likewise, it offers a preferred Marriott Bonvoy points to United miles transfer rate and reciprocal elite status.

This partnership has the potential to be a huge asset during the coronavirus pandemic. Travelers may not be flying now, but road tripping is on the rise. People book hotels when on these road trips, and having access to more Marriott benefits would be great for user experience and send business to Marriott, one of United’s closest partners.

So, how can United and Marriott do this? Simple: take a note from American and Hyatt. American elites earn 1 mile per dollar spent on all Hyatt stays in addition to World of Hyatt points. I’d like to see United and Marriott do the same and offer United miles on all Marriott stays for United elites.

Likewise, it would be great to see United’s Marriott status match improved. Currently, United elites with Gold or higher status receive a free match to Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite. It would be nice to see top-tier 1K members get upgraded to Marriott Platinum or Titanium Elite for the future — similar to how American offered a fast-track to Globalist to select elites.

These additions would make elite status more appealing and useful during the pandemic. Plus, it would help both United and Marriott create a more loyal following that will not only help with revenue now but in the future once regular travel resumes.

Related: The award traveler’s guide to Marriott Bonvoy

Bottom line

United hasn’t been the best airline through the coronavirus pandemic, but it can redeem itself. Implementing even one of these changes would be a significant step in the right direction towards being a better loyalty program. It would give members more value and — in many cases — could even improve United’s bottom line.

The changes that don’t directly improve United’s bottom line will have a lasting impact too. Things like reimplementing some predictable pricing and removing PQP caps are a sign of goodwill for members. In the future, these will encourage United members to fly with the airline and stay loyal. In my eyes, this has a much larger future impact than short-term cost-cutting.

Feature photo by EQRoy/Shutterstock

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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