United’s regional and global upgrade process is changing with PlusPoints

Sep 24, 2019

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We have some big news to share on today’s episode of Talking Points! Brian Kelly had a chance to sit down with Luc Bondar, United Airlines’ Vice President of Loyalty, to dig into some significant changes coming to the airline’s frequent-flyer program, MileagePlus.

Luc explains the carrier’s new PlusPoints upgrade system, enabling more flexible upgrades for Premier Platinum, 1K and Global Services members. He also digs into some other award options and benefits, such as the Excursionist Perk, and shares some of his favorite redemptions and items on his MileagePlus wishlist.

Finally, Luc details a benefit Randi Zuckerberg mentioned during her sit-down with Brian, United’s unpublicized status-pause offering that lets pregnant mothers, new fathers, adopting parents, or individuals suffering following an accident or illness extend their status free of charge. It’s all detailed in the episode below.

You can play this episode above, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Featured photo by Natalie Roe / TPG
Transcript:

Brian Kelly: Welcome to this episode of Talking Points. I’m your host, Brian Kelly, The Points Guy, and today we’ve got a really special episode. So not only do we have the head of one of the largest loyalty programs out there, but we also are going to be exclusively announcing the creation of a new type of points. And if you’re a United top-tier frequent flyer, you’re going to want to listen in, because this is some pretty exciting stuff. Luc Bondar, thank you so much for joining us today.

Luc Bondar: Thanks, Brian. Great to be here.

Brian Kelly: You know, normally, I try to warm up, but let’s just get straight to the points, because I’m sure people listening right now are like, “Wait. A new type of points from United?” Let’s just get into it. What does United have to announce today?

Luc Bondar: I’m really excited. When I joined the team, one of the very early conversations that I had with one of our most valuable customers was around upgrades and ways that we could think about improving or enhancing upgrades. We spend a lot of time together as a team looking at our current upgrade system, and how that works and where there are opportunities to improve it. So today I’m really excited to announce a whole new way of upgrading when you fly United as a premier customer, for our premium levels for Platinum and 1K.

Luc Bondar: We’re introducing Plus Points. Plus Points are a new way of managing upgrade benefits that gives customers more control. It gives them more flexibility, allows them to customize their upgrades. It gives them different ways that they can upgrade from different cabins at different price points. In essence, it’s giving our customers just more flexibility and an increased opportunity to use their upgrades when they fly United.

Brian Kelly: Cool. Let’s just go over it for people listening. As of today, you, if you’re a Platinum flyer, you get regional upgrades.

Luc Bondar: Correct. You get two regional upgrades.

Brian Kelly: Which is just for in the U.S.

Luc Bondar: That’s right. Inside one region, not just U.S., but inside one region, as we define it.

Brian Kelly: Oh, okay.

Luc Bondar: When a customer earns 1K, they earn six GPUs, and they get an additional two regional upgrades, so two up Us, six GPUs. Someone that’s earned through Platinum to 1K, effectively, has four regional upgrades and six global upgrades today. With Plus Points and the way that pricing conversion works, with 20 Plus Points for a regional upgrade, and 40 Plus Points for global upgrade, they’re effectively now getting the equivalent of eight global upgrades. And the exciting thing is that our Platinum customers, who previously only got two regional upgrades, can now combine those. They now have, effectively, 40 Plus Points, which is the same as a global upgrade on the old system, so Platinum should be really excited because they now have the opportunity to upgrade on long-haul into Polaris, whereas they didn’t previously. So what Plus Points entails is a conversion from our old global upgrades and regional upgrades to a new universal and neutral currency. We talk about it as this universal currency because regional upgrades previously had this restriction, you had to use them inside one region. Now you can combine, effectively, two regionals to create one global.

Brian Kelly: One global, which is awesome. So for Platinum members listening, instead of being restricted to regional, you could combine them and get the global, what would be a global.

Luc Bondar: Yeah, yeah.

Brian Kelly: And at the conversion rates, I know everyone listening is going to be like, “Well, where is the hammer dropping? Are you taking the value of these points away?”

Luc Bondar: No, no. It’s …

Brian Kelly: Are you, essentially, watering them down?

Luc Bondar: No, we’re not at all. One of the really important things for us was to make sure that for all of our premium customers, this was great news. We wanted to ensure that we were adding more value, not taking something away. So original upgrades convert to 20 Plus Points. Global upgrades convert to 40 Plus Points. And if you want to upgrade from Domestic Economy to Domestic First, it’s 20 Plus Points, so it’s the same price as a regional upgrade. If you want to upgrade on a long-haul flight from a Premium Economy fare or from a W fare or higher in economy to Polaris, that is 40 Plus Points. What we’ve introduced as well is a whole series of additional price points that give customers more opportunities to use their Plus Points — if they want to, say, go from discount economy all the way up to Polaris, that’s possible. If they want to go from economy up to United Premium Plus, that’s possible. And in that example, it will actually cost less than 40 Plus Points to move from economy to Premium Plus. Whereas previously, a customer would have used the whole GPU to do that.

Brian Kelly: Let’s go back to the — you just mentioned that Premium Plus to Polaris would be 40, which is the price of a GPU today. But doesn’t a GPU take you from economy to Polaris?

Luc Bondar: Correct. So today, a Premium Plus to Polaris, under new Plus Points, will cost 30 points.

Brian Kelly: Oh, 30. Okay, so …

Luc Bondar: It’s actually less than a GPU today.

Brian Kelly: Got it.

Luc Bondar: So that’s the important thing is — 40 Plus Points, the same as a GPU, will do everything that a GPU does today.

Brian Kelly: That it does today.

Luc Bondar: Plus, we now have this improved pricing structure that gives customers the ability to move just up a single cabin for a smaller number of Plus Points than what the old GPU would have.

Brian Kelly: Got it. In terms of earning Plus Points, for every 25,000 additional EQMs a 1K gets, will they get more Plus Points?

Luc Bondar: We will continue to have our incremental program, and that’s really exciting. It’s interesting, I was chatting with a customer the other day and they said, “What’s my incentive to keep flying United after I achieve 1K status?” I said, “It’s incremental upgrades, absolutely.” And I think the opportunity here to continue earning Plus Points as they fly us is great, because of the enhanced flexibility that these now have. One of the goals for us was to improve clearance rates. Upgrades are one of the top benefits that our premier customers value. It gives them an opportunity to fly in the premium cabin when they’re flying long-haul, when they’re flying domestic. And as a result, we want it to make it easier to earn them and easier to use them, and we believe that Plus Points is going to be industry-leading in that respect.

Brian Kelly: In terms of fare class restrictions there’s no full economy … You’re not changing the fare classes in which people can …

Luc Bondar: No, we’re not, we’re not. I mean, one of the interesting things, and this was one of the pain points that some of our premier customers had expressed previously, was that we required that they purchase a W fare in order to put down a GPU to apply to wait list for a Polaris seat. And with Plus Points, that still is an option, and that will cost 40 Plus Points. But if customers choose to, they could purchase a lower-priced fare bucket in economy and they could put down Plus Points to go all the way to Polaris. It’ll cost more Plus Points to do that but, effectively, it’s unlocking the upgrade currency that we’re giving out to our customers.

Brian Kelly: Because that is a pain point if you pay a ton extra for the same seat, and if the upgrade doesn’t pass, then you’ve essentially just parted with money unnecessarily, sort of.

Luc Bondar: Well, yeah. Well, and you would get it back, you’d get a refund, but you paid for the …

Brian Kelly: Oh. You get a refund in the fare?

Luc Bondar: No, you paid for the W. You’re right, exactly right. And so with Plus Points today, you will find two things. One, you obviously can pay for the W and it’ll cost you 40 Plus Points. You can buy a cheaper economy fare, and you would pay 80 Plus Points to do that, so the equivalent of using two GPUs.

Brian Kelly: Got it.

Luc Bondar: But what’s really important as well, and I think this is a really key difference for this new upgrade currency, is unlike the old GPUs and RPUs, where we would take them out at the time that a customer put them down, we now only take them out when they clear. What that means for customers is that they’re able to put down their upgrades on multiple itineraries that they have out in front of them. It used to be that if I had three or four flights booked, but I only had two GPUs left, I had to guess which one …

Brian Kelly: Which one, yeah.

Luc Bondar: … of those I was most likely to clear on. With Plus Points, I can now put those down onto all four of those upcoming flights and they will only be deducted from my account at the time they clear.

Brian Kelly: If for some reason you decided later on you didn’t actually … You can get them back.

Luc Bondar: Once the upgrade has cleared, you can’t cancel it.

Brian Kelly: You can’t cancel it.

Luc Bondar: Yeah.

Brian Kelly: In terms of the expiration, they’ll still expire as a GPU?

Luc Bondar: Yep, yep. So they’ll expire in-line with the earned program year. If you get them when you qualify for status, for the following year, and then they’ll expire at the end of that year of status that you end.

Brian Kelly: I mean, I do think, I’m trying to find the hammer dropping here, and I really don’t see it. Because I know every January, people are always like giving up their regionals away. I know lots of TPG members have benefited from Zach Honig’s niceness. Of course, not selling or bartering them, giving them away. But I think this will now allow elites to use them in more ways. So in terms of usability, I’m excited that this will be — so, not only on the site, but on (the) app as well.

Luc Bondar: Yeah, that’s right. I think, again, this is an area that we think we’re going to lead the industry, and we’re really excited about this and what it means for our customers. We have now the ability to not only apply your upgrade and manage your upgrade through our Contact Center, which is what all the major carriers offer. We also now have the opportunity to apply an upgrade and then to manage that through our .com site, through mobile Web and then also, coming very soon, through our native app.

Luc Bondar: And so that ability to self-service upgrades — I think we have the, I believe we’ve got, the best app in the industry today. And this is just another way that we’re really enhancing that and looking to lead, to give our customers the ability to manage their own travel experience. If they need assistance, they can always call up our Contact Center, but our goal is to make our app and our website so easy to use and so contextual and valuable for our customers that they can manage all of their upgrade needs online and on their mobile device themselves.

Brian Kelly: And when do Plus Points happen? What’s the transition?

Luc Bondar: Great question. We are converting Plus Points on the 4th of December.

Brian Kelly: Okay.

Luc Bondar: That will be the date at which everyone’s existing balance of RPUs and GPUs will convert to Plus Points. And so Plus Point pricing will go into effect from that date and, obviously, as we move into the new program year, next year, then everyone that qualifies for Platinum or 1K will get a new allotment of Plus Points. But effectively, Plus Points are live and in effect from the 4th of December this year.

Brian Kelly: One of the interesting things that I saw was that you’ll be able to use double … or there’ll be offers — it doesn’t exactly say how many — for certain members to jump the line.

Luc Bondar: Yeah. That’s a great point. We’ve talked with a lot of our 1K and Platinum and GS members. I’ve actually started a breakfast series this year in which we go around to our different hubs and sit down and meet with some of our most valuable customers. And one of the pain points that they continue to raise is the ability to use their upgrade certificates, to use these regional and global upgrades, and the fact that some of them, at the end of each year, end up with them left over. One of the ideas that had come up through these conversations, fortunately, was something we were already working on. And that is the concept of using more of your currency to give you greater certainty with regard to your upgrade. So from time to time, (on) more of a promotional basis and not for all customers —  obviously, you need to have a large enough balance to do this — customers will have the ability to confirm at time of booking, even when our upgrade classes are closed, to move from their economy ticket all the way up to the Polaris cabin using what we call Skip Wait List as …

Brian Kelly: Is that just 1K and GS?

Luc Bondar: You would need to be 1K because the pricing …

Brian Kelly: Yeah. You wouldn’t have any …

Luc Bondar: … the pricing to this, the pricing for … [crosstalk]

Brian Kelly: You wouldn’t have enough points. Yeah.

Luc Bondar: Exactly right, yeah.

Brian Kelly: Interesting. Is that … I know that’s international. Will that also be on those hard-to-get upgrades like Newark-San Francisco as well?

Luc Bondar: No. I think the focus is very much on international …

Brian Kelly: International.

Luc Bondar: … long-haul for this. We really want to unlock, I think, the ability to book further out. There’ll be a couple of conditions with Skip Wait List. Again, (it) won’t always be available, so it’ll be a great reason for our customers to engage with our mailing promotions and email promotions and the like, to be aware of when this is on offer. It will need to be 30 days out, and so we’re thinking about this more through the lens of leisure travel. So when I want to book six months out, I want to go on that leisure trip that I’ve been sort of promising my partner, I’m able to book it — and confirm at time of booking — that upgrade. Whereas today, a lot of the time there’s still a wait list required. This is something that our top customers have told us will be incredibly valuable for them, and they’re really excited about it. A couple of other things that are probably worth highlighting. Unlike other upgrades where they are transferable — so I for example, can use my Plus Points to upgrade a member of my family — in the case of Skip Wait List, the customer will need to be on the PNR.

Brian Kelly: On the flight.

Luc Bondar: Exactly.

Brian Kelly: In terms of Plus Points for other people, there’s no change in …

Luc Bondar: That’s right, same policy exists.

Brian Kelly: Well, I have to say I’ve been flying United a lot. I just took the 787-10 to Israel, and the Polaris Lounge and experience was incredible. So I know United’s been doing a lot of work on the Polaris product. I’m actually, you’ve even now started to take my transcon … I’m flying to San Francisco a bunch over the next six months, and I love the timing of those 787s on a domestic route, so kudos to you guys on the product.

Luc Bondar: Thank you.

Brian Kelly: So you’ve been at MileagePlus just under two years now.

Luc Bondar: That’s right, yep. November 1 will be two years.

Brian Kelly: Early happy anniversary. So, what is it like? I know you’ve embarked on listening to a lot of customers.

Luc Bondar: Yup.

Brian Kelly: What has the experience been so far for you?

Luc Bondar: It’s been incredible. I’ve worked in the loyalty industry for 25 years. I’ve worked with airlines, banks, retailers, payment networks, hotels, car rental companies — and the travel industry has always been, sort of, where my heart is. To be inside, A, one of the world’s largest loyalty programs and then, B, inside United, which is an incredible airline on an amazing trajectory, it’s an incredibly exciting place to be right now. It’s incredible. The opportunity that we have to really change the experience for our customers is a top priority for me, for our business as a whole. So when we are looking at MileagePlus as a team, over the last year — I mean, you’ve seen a number of changes that we’ve announced in the last six months — we have been very strongly focused on, “What can we do to make MileagePlus the world’s best loyalty program? What are the ways that we can ensure that we’re continuing to give great value to our premier customers?” Which is, Plus Points is another great example of that. Then equally, “What are the things that we can do for all of our members to make sure that being a member of MileagePlus is delivering real value to our customers every time they fly?” Not just through the miles that they’re earning, but also through the experience that we’re able to deliver to them as a MileagePlus member.

Brian Kelly: All right. We’re going to take a quick break right now. I’ll see you in a minute.

[Commercial break]

Brian Kelly: One of the upcoming changes you have — November 15th you’re going to be getting rid of traditional award charts for United operated flights. A lot of people think of that as stressful. There’s a lot of anxiety. “What’s to come?” Certainly, Delta has led the way with this sort of dynamic pricing where you don’t really know how much a flight’s going to be until you log on to price it. What would you say to someone who’s stressed out about November 15th?

Luc Bondar: I’d say, go out and look at our pricing today, (for) post-November 15th, because our dynamic pricing is there. It’s already live. We announced it in April of this year that we’re going fully dynamic. We’ve actually had dynamic pricing in market now since early 2018, and as we have rolled that out, we’ve been very thoughtful about the approach. The goal with the removal of the award chart is not to, as is often sort of the cry, devalue the program, but it’s to do a better job of matching demand and supply. We have increasing demand for certain flights at certain times, and our ability to match that demand by pricing a little differently has been really helpful. Because what it’s done is it’s sort of reinforced the message to all of our customers, or the opportunity for all of our customers, that there are great award prices to be had out there if customers can be a little flexible. We run a business as well, so we’ve got to make sure that when there’s a high level of demand for revenue tickets, that we can sell those at a market price. Because that allows us to be a great business and make great returns, and continue to reinvest in our product and reinvest in the program. But what we’ve seen, most importantly, through the move to dynamic pricing is that our prices overall have come down, so the …

Brian Kelly: Are you serious?

Luc Bondar: I’m serious. The average price paid per award ticket has come down, and that’s a function of a couple of things. We have Saver pricing and everyday pricing under the old … If you go back in time, we had two price points. Then we introduced dynamic pricing, where we had price points between Saver and everyday. It used to be that once we sort of had exhausted the supply of Saver tickets, everything jacked all the way up to the everyday price. When we introduced dynamic pricing between this floor and this ceiling, we started introducing new increments, and so that gave customers more opportunity to buy those awards seats at a lower price than they would have otherwise paid for an everyday fare. And so that’s what, in terms of changing what that average price looks like, it’s really a function of that. It’s a function of no longer moving from a Saver price all the way up to an everyday price, but pricing along that demand curve, in line with the availability that we have on the flight. We’re also, I think, very thoughtful about understanding the value that our customers place on being able to use their miles. It’s obviously critical. This is why they’re saving them. They want to travel, they want to sort of live the aspirations and the dreams that they have in terms of their award travel. And when we introduced dynamic pricing last year, and then in April when we made the call to remove the award chart, we were very thoughtful about ensuring that the price points that we moved to, all the way up through sort of even our peak pricing, are in line with the ability to redeem those miles, to access those flights. And so last year, in 2018, we had a record number of customers join MileagePlus, which is great, but we also had a record number of customers redeem. We had a record number of miles used, and we had a lower average price paid per award, and that trend is continuing this year. So I’m actually genuinely excited about what this means. Now, I will say that for a very small segment of customers, and I think some of them are your listeners, candidly, there is a group out there that will look at the old, everyday price on a chart, look at the peak fare, and that will be sort of their conversion of the possible value they’d get. But the beauty of this is it’s really unlocking value for all of our customers, and making the miles much more useful.

Brian Kelly: Usable, yeah. For those people who only want Saver awards, have you thought about developing a tool that says, “I want to go to Europe, and these are the routes I can fly on Saver”? Like, making it easier to sniff them out?

Luc Bondar: Yeah, I think there is always an opportunity to improve search capability. I think search in the travel industry is still sort of operating on an old model. And the ability to search for specific destinations or even to say, “Look, I have this many miles and here’s where I’d love to go. I want to go to a warm destination. What’s out there that I could possibly look at?” These are all opportunities that we have in the future, and we’ll continue to enhance the customer experience for our members.

Brian Kelly: One of the ways that I quell people’s nerves when they’re like, “The points are raising across the board. All the airlines are charging us more,” but on the flip side, on the earn side, it is easier than it’s ever been to earn points, whether it’s huge signup bonuses or increasing categories on all the major credit cards on how much you earn points. Interestingly, United — your credit card, Andrew Nocella said last year that you … The credit card portfolio has been underperforming in relation to your peers; Delta and Amex have more cards. Looking at the United card portfolio, the one of the biggest blind spots for big spenders is earning EQMs, which the Presidential Plus card, the Continental card did have, and people are still grandfathered in.

Luc Bondar: Yeah, sure.

Brian Kelly: If you want more juice from your card portfolio and you want to engage the people spending the most, wouldn’t it make sense to add an EQM earning on the Club card, or even a new super premium card?

Luc Bondar: Yeah, look, I think that’s a fair observation, Brian. We have a great partner in Chase and we’re always looking at the product set that we have in our portfolio, and how well it fits the market and market need. As I look at it — so as you say, been there coming up two years now — this has been a real area of focus for us: Looking at our suite of cards, and how they match the market. Looking at the value that we have on those cards, and how that creates competitive advantage for us. And I think it’s fair to say that we believe there are a number of opportunities, both on our existing cards and for new cards, to continue to expand what we have. Obviously can’t talk about the details on that today, but I’d say continue to watch what we do around our card business. It’s going to be an area of continued growth for us. We’re excited about what that offers, but we will continue to look at ways we can make it better.

Brian Kelly: Well, while I have you as a captive audience, I know people would want me to also push you to have a waiver like Delta does, even at crazy — what, 250,000 in spend — for 1K. I know that’s something some people would want, so I know you probably can’t comment on that, but EQM earning and an EQD waiver could be good areas to excite.

Luc Bondar: Yep. I will make sure that we take that back.

Brian Kelly: You were like …

Luc Bondar: Absolutely.

Brian Kelly: The dynamic pricing has been on United operated flights. Is that something you plan to roll out to your Star and other airline partners, when it comes to rewards?

Luc Bondar: Yeah, look, that’s a great question. I think our award policy is — we don’t have any changes in plan for our award policy. We are always looking at ways that we can continue to improve the way that our customers can use their miles. And so working together with our partners, I know when we announced the removal of the award chart, that was an area that pretty much everyone we spoke to had questions about. But yeah, as it stands, we don’t have anything imminent or planned in terms of changes for that, and our award policy remains as is.

Brian Kelly: Yeah. I mean, when you think about the need for dynamic pricing, it’s, there’s billions of more miles pumped in every month to the system across all airlines, from the co-brands and, frankly, airlines are not increasing capacity that much. In addition to giving more ways for people to redeem instead of the feast or famine, Saver, peak pricing, are you investing heavily in non-travel redemptions? I know you do have an experience platform. Is that a big focus going forward?

Luc Bondar: Yeah, it is. If you think about my background, I’ve sort of worked across a range of industries where we’re trying to bring more utility to the currency that our customers have. I would say, for starters, that air travel continues to be the number one redemption for all of our customers. And so finding ways to improve the utility of that currency, get more customers flying on award travel more often, is a priority for us. Equally, giving our customers, I’d say, as a first step, the ability to use their miles in more places when they fly with United. So today, for example, you can use miles to redeem for Wi-Fi subscriptions, or for TSA PreCheck, and so there are great opportunities for our members today, but there’s more we can do. So I would love, for example, the ability to be able to pay for a drink in flight with miles by just tapping my phone to a flight attendant on the plane, to their mobile device. And so we are looking at ways that we can continue to expand how miles are used inside the United ecosystem, so we call that mile utility. So that will be a continued push for us. Then importantly, as well, if I look today at the program, we are the, I think, the number one program in terms of all the places and ways that customers can earn miles, and also in all the different ways that they can redeem miles. So I think we offer more ways that customers can redeem their miles today than any other program. And that’s important because, as you say, not all customers are going to look to travel. Some are going to look to use their miles in different ways. One of the options that we provide our members is the MileagePlus X App, which gives our members tremendous ability to both sort of accelerate their earning, but also to redeem their miles. And so that is something that I would encourage everyone listening today to check out, if they don’t already use it.

Brian Kelly: Yeah, I agree. Download the MileagePlus X App. I know there’s a lot of people in the TPG office who love that app. It’s a no-brainer. I’m curious, I know through your partnership with OTG you can use miles on food in the airport, at the iPads or in the MileagePlus shop. Do a lot of people redeem their miles for food at the airport?

Luc Bondar: I wouldn’t say a lot, but enough to make it absolutely worth doing for both us and for OTG, and for the members that use it. And so continuing to enhance that ability to use miles in airport is another area of focus. Really thinking about … if you think about sort of the payment space broadly, miles are a form of currency and so we want to continue to give our travelers opportunities to use those miles right across their travel journey, as well as expanding, sort of, opportunities outside in everyday spend categories.

Brian Kelly: Props for taking away the expiration of miles.

Luc Bondar: Yep.

Brian Kelly: I think that’s a win for consumers across the board, and also your CLEAR partnership. So CLEAR, for those who don’t know, we’ve actually interviewed Karen, the CEO, on Talking Points. I’m a huge fan, I just re-upped my membership. So you’re going to be giving away CLEAR for free for 1K and Global Services and then $119 for everyone else.

Luc Bondar: $109 …

Brian Kelly: A hundred and …

Luc Bondar: … for Platinum and Gold and Silver.

Brian Kelly: Oh, I see. Got it.

Luc Bondar: Then $119 for all other MileagePlus members. Yeah, really excited. I think one of the things that’s important for us, and I mentioned it before, is sort of this continually looking at ways to invest in the program and to invest in our members to give them more value when they fly United as a MileagePlus member. The CLEAR partnership was a really good step in that direction. As you mentioned, sort of the removal of miles expiry is tremendous — obviously less important for someone who’s a really frequent flyer, but for families, for people who are flying less frequently, we know that that is tremendously valuable. I don’t know if anyone on this call has ever had miles expire. It’s — we had enough customers (who) used to call us under the old program policy that it was very clearly a pain point, and so taking that away, that’s an investment on our part. That’s something that we believe is the right thing to do for our customers.

Luc Bondar: We have a number of other initiatives. I recently announced the promotion for Gen Zs that we’re running through to the end of the year, which is a 10% discount for travelers aged 18 to 22, that we will also fund the carbon offset for any travel that is booked by those travelers. They need to book their travel for themselves on the mobile app and be a member of the program.

Brian Kelly: It’s a 10% off any fare?

Luc Bondar: 10% off any domestic fare and off select international fares, so a really cool promotion for young travelers. We know that Gen Z is sort of this huge behemoth of a market segment that’s coming into the market. They’re starting out their journey for independent travel. They haven’t often yet sort of declared allegiance to any one carrier, and so we’re looking to build those relationships.

Brian Kelly: That’s interesting. I remember when I graduated college in ’05, so I’m barely a millennial, but I remember United was very aggressive, and there was a 10,000-mile college graduation bonus.

Luc Bondar: Yep.

Brian Kelly: I remember, so it’s interesting to see you keep doing that. Speaking of families, we had a very United loyal, Randi Zuckerberg, on this podcast. She said that she pushed you guys to offer a pause on status for maternity and other life events. Do you guys officially offer that today or is that in the works?

Luc Bondar: We actually have what I think is the industry-leading policy in this space. We just don’t publish it, and we don’t talk about it widely. I know some other carriers have sort of more recently talked about it more openly. I actually did listen to that podcast, and I think it’s important. So for anyone listening today, we have a maternity, paternity, adoption and pregnancy policy, as well as an accident and illness policy that, essentially, allows for any customer in any of those situations to extend their current status. The way we’ve set that up, unlike other programs which require a challenge to maintain status (and) there’s some documentation required, customers just need to call up and speak to our agents and we will, essentially, grant a maintenance of their existing status level for the remainder of the current year and into the following year. And so when you weigh that up against other life event policies that are out there, this is, I think, the most generous of its type. Because we, essentially, are saying, “Listen, you’ve already proven your loyalty to us. We don’t need you to jump through further hoops. All you need to do is just share some information just to validate your life situation and with that, we will absolutely protect your current status for the current year and through the next year as well.”

Brian Kelly: So interesting. You don’t reset, you pause it and just continue it to the next year or do you reset … I can imagine how this would get confusing.

Luc Bondar: Yeah, I know. We just, we essentially, the status you have, as of that year, is the status you maintain through the end of that year, and then for the following year.

Brian Kelly: Oh, that’s very generous.

Luc Bondar: That’s why I’d actually say it is actually the best policy out there, but …

Brian Kelly: Well why wouldn’t you advertise that? That’s awesome.

Luc Bondar: That’s something, I think one of the exciting things at United, you might have seen this. We’re on the front foot a lot more these days in terms of really getting out there and talking about all the great things that we do for our customers. Some of the things where maybe in the past, we haven’t had as much credit for. Look, as a dad of four young kids …

Brian Kelly: I’m one of four. Four is a good number.

Luc Bondar: Four’s a great … I’m one of four also.

Brian Kelly: I’m the third, so you always have to watch out for third.

Luc Bondar: Okay, okay. I can … Yeah, that’s a fair point. I had the third stay with me last weekend, so, out from Australia. I am the first of four. I also have four kids, and so I can absolutely appreciate the value and the importance of that life events policy that we have. We actually made some changes to that policy last year just to make it even easier for our customers to sort of meet the requirements, and for our agents to then issue that maintenance of their status.

Brian Kelly: That’s awesome.

Luc Bondar: Yeah, it’s very cool.

Brian Kelly: Now, what is one are of the MileagePlus program, beyond the MileagePlus X App, which everyone listening is going to download …

Luc Bondar: Yep.

Brian Kelly: What’s one underutilized area or perk of MileagePlus that you want to let people know about?  Is there a certain redemption or perk that you would want people to pay attention to that you think maybe doesn’t get enough attention?

Luc Bondar: Yeah, great question, Brian. We have a very cool perk called the Excursionist Perk. This is, I think, something that at TPG, you know all about. I know a number of your writers and editors are big fans of this perk in particular. What it essentially does is it allows our customers to create a multi-leg award itinerary that gives them, essentially, a free segment in the middle of their travel, as long as it’s in a different region to their originating and destination region. So that gives the opportunity for customers to put together some really exciting travel plans, see more places around the world, and do so with really attractive award pricing because, essentially, they’re getting a free segment right in the middle of their travel. Or in some cases, free multiple segments. So I would encourage your listeners to actually take a look at your website, because I think …

Brian Kelly: I was going to say we could go into the details. Even for me, as an expert, I’m sometimes like, “Wait. What’s the exact requirements?” But if you just Google “The Points Guy, Excursionist Perk,” we have a really detailed … That is cool. I love when loyalty programs add the gamification to where you work to something you get this amazing reward.

Luc Bondar: Absolutely. It’s fun, it’s fun.

Brian Kelly: It’s fun, and it’s like, once you crack the code, you’re like, “Aha!”

Luc Bondar: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, I think that’s probably, of all of the benefits, the perks that we have … Most of those we try to sing to the heavens and make sure everyone knows about, but the Excursionist Perk is one where our customers have the opportunity to get outsize value when they fly. And I would encourage all of your listeners to get out there and learn more about it.

Brian Kelly: Go take an excursion. All right. Speaking of excursions, United flies tons of places. I’m going to have to ask you, and you’re not allowed to answer, “Australia.” What route, what United destination, do you love going to for a family vacation?

Luc Bondar: Australia’s the easy one, but that’s actually not where I would put — because I’ve lived in the U.S. now 13 years, and we go back to Australia every year. Family are there, so that’s always a necessary trip, but I am most excited about two of our newer destinations. One we started flying a little under a year ago, and one we start flying at the end of this year. So I’m going to do a trip just with my wife, and not with my four kids, to Tahiti.

Brian Kelly: Tahiti, nice.

Luc Bondar: I’m really excited about Tahiti.

Brian Kelly: I flew United last year. I wasn’t on the inaugural, but I flew United back, and that’s such an easy flight, perfect timing.

Luc Bondar: Oh, it’s awesome. Yeah, it’s fantastic. I’m pretty fortunate. I started traveling at under (age) one. Sort of one of my first trips was on a 747 from Australia all the way through to San Francisco. And from a young age, my parents instilled in me just a great love of travel. And I’ve been fortunate to go to many countries, continents, seen a lot of the world. One place I am yet to go is Africa …

Brian Kelly: Oh.

Luc Bondar: … or South Africa. I’m incredibly excited for our Cape Town flight, which we start flying in mid-December this year. And so next year, and if my kids listen to this, take note that this is in the plans, but not confirmed…

Brian Kelly: “You must get straight As.” “Stay in …”

Luc Bondar: I am absolutely excited to explore Cape Town and …

Brian Kelly: I can tell you, I’ll give you some tips. I go every year for PeaceJam. I’m actually going in October, so your non-stop, unfortunately, isn’t around then. But South Africa is probably, when people say, “What’s the one place I should go?” … South Africa is absolutely fantastic. I’ve done safaris all over Africa and my favorite is always Kruger, Sabi Sands. South African safari is, it’s just fabulous. And Cape Town and the wine country is a 35-minute drive outside the city, and just, I mean, it’s amazing to go with your kids. I mean the wildlife, to be able to go to Boulders Beach and just see all the little penguins, and it’s just an absolutely beautiful country, so …

Luc Bondar: Yeah, no, I’m really [crosstalk] excited about it, so I will be hitting you up for some tips because it sounds like …

Brian Kelly: Done.

Luc Bondar: … you’ve had a great experience there.

Brian Kelly: Final question, it’s extremely difficult. So, window or aisle seat?

Luc Bondar: Well, it depends. Long-haul flight through the night, window every time. Flying during the day, aisle. Because I want to be able to get up and down, speak to the flight attendants, get out and sort of see what’s going on on the flight. But when it’s a long-haul flight and I want to get some sleep, then I like to generally not have people climbing over me. But I will say, when you’re flying in Polaris …

Brian Kelly: I was waiting for this.

Luc Bondar: … and you’ve got full all-aisle access, then it really doesn’t matter. So I would encourage everyone, if you prefer the aisle, then go Polaris, because you’ll get aisle all the way.

Brian Kelly: Luc Bondar, thanks so much for joining us today, and congrats on Plus Points, which is a clear win for frequent flyers.

Luc Bondar: Thanks, Brian. It was great to be here, and great to get a chance to talk about all the exciting stuff we’re doing at MileagePlus.

Brian Kelly: That’s it for this episode of Talking Points. I’m your host, Brian Kelly. And huge thank you to Luc Bondar of United Airlines. Safe travels, everyone.

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