Will United offer elite shortcuts again? MileagePlus exec tells TPG what to look for in 2022
Though travel may be returning, some flyers are still grounded and others are taking just a few limited leisure trips.
A recovery in business travel still lags well behind those flying to visit family and friends. Yet, despite the demand downtown, United's MileagePlus program has already had more elites requalify for Premier status this year than in 2019, well before the pandemic started.
That's according to TPG's recent conversation with Michael Covey, managing director of the MileagePlus loyalty program — or as many loyalists know him as "MileagePlus Mike" on his active Twitter account.
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"That's a huge kudos to the team, not my team or other teams, just the whole airline as a whole, we're attracting our Premiers back, and they're coming back in record numbers. And that's really something that makes me extremely proud," Covey said.
Of course, that figure can largely be attributed to the program's limited-time quarterly promotions that have made status easier to achieve. With global travel still down considerably compared to pre-pandemic levels, Covey and the team introduced multiple accelerators and lowered thresholds to help elites cross the finish line, and that seems to have done the trick.
It's about "responding to the demand environment," according to Covey. Now that we're just about two months away from another Premier requalification year, it's time for Covey and the team to start planning adjustments for 2022 status.
"I can't give you those details yet," he said during the interview. However, Covey continued to reassure flyers that United would approach 2022 through the same lens that it did in 2020 and 2021. "You will see that same thing for 2022. We're gonna work with our customers. We understand the demand. We understand the cyclical nature of this demand, and we're gonna make the 2022 program in concert with those demand shifts," he added.
For now, United loyalists will need to hold their breath, but if the airline's track record is any indication, it seems like the program is gearing up for some adjustments.
Perhaps the hardest hit Premier members have been business travelers, who've been banned by their companies from inter-office visits, offsite client meetings and other in-person conferences and events. This population has historically driven much of the program's and airline's bottom line, though Covey isn't worried about those travelers defecting to other airlines.
In fact, most of them have already requalified this year despite a significant reduction in business demand, according to Covey. Most have either traveled for leisure, spent money on their cobranded credit cards (which earns additional Premier qualifying points this year) or traveled to meet clients at outdoor dining venues or similar safer mid-pandemic meeting spots away from the office.
"I cannot tell you the number of members that have said, 'I'm going to do this, and I'm going to meet United halfway' and we're gonna meet you halfway, too," he added.
While many members have already requalified, some top-tier Premier Platinums and 1Ks haven't been able to use their confirmed upgrades, called PlusPoints, on long-haul flights due to border restrictions and other pandemic-related closures. As such, United has already extended the validity of these upgrades, giving members into 2022 to use them (either January or July, depending on when they were first issued).
Is another extension in the cards? Possibly, said Covey.
"Right now, we're in the point in time where international markets are just starting to open up. So we've got about two or three good months of international traffic. We want to see what the environment looks like, and we'll make a decision," he added.
It'll be interesting to follow what happens next, but if you feel like your voice as a Premier member isn't being heard, Covey encouraged you to fill out the airline's surveys.
After you purchase an award ticket on United.com, the website asks you to "please tell us about your experience." Guess who reads those responses? Covey himself. "I read that every day, every single one of those come to my inbox and I read it every day," he proudly told TPG.
"We're going to listen and we're going to make changes where we can to make it better for our Premiers and make it better for everybody," he said.
Turns out, he already has some proof points. Covey cited customer feedback as the reason for the introduction of United's PlusPoints program. "We heard members saying, 'why am I using a Global Premier Upgrade [United's old upgrade certificates] to go from Seattle to San Francisco?'"
That's when he decided to explore possible replacement options, and ultimately landed on PlusPoints.
Last year, the airline added a brand-new benefit for its invite-only Global Services members. They can now access the United Club on any domestic flight.
That improvement came from a listening session with the airline's top spenders. "Global Services members say 'when I travel domestically, I get to the airport 45 minutes in advance. I don't really need the lounge, but when there's a delay, I need that lounge."'
So, according to Covey, "that's where I said, 'let's figure out how to do this.' And we figured out a policy that works both for United and for our customers."