For 2020, GSTP will launch a new Wednesday column titled “calling BS”, where we take a look at something which just doesn’t quite seem right…

In my heart, I’ve always believed that frequent flyers are gluttons for punishment. If that’s to be true, these days, we’re really getting what we ultimately crave. Changes are everywhere, benefits are being slashed and now, United has gone a step further than any other airline program, fully equating travel benefits earned with spending given – and nothing else.

As of today, the ridiculous new system is live. I’m calling BS on these changes, because this no longer qualifies as a loyalty program. It has nothing to do with loyalty. If you’re unaware of the changes, catch up here for more. In short: it doesn’t matter if you fly around the world 100 times, it just matters what you spend.

Earning “premier’ elite status with United MileagePlus is now based purely on money, and nothing to do with how often you fly, or how far you go.

It takes a strong character, or someone who’s pretty addicted to pay a few bucks to stay brand loyal, or choose a lesser preferred flight routing just to stick to an alliance. But apparently, United doesn’t value that at all. You’d think I’m being facetious, but choosing United for all your flying now truly means nothing to them. Their new system for earning loyalty perks all but explicitly says so.

Unless, of course, you’re spending $24k a year on tickets.

Now before you go to the “well, people who pay more should get more argument”, save your breath. I agree. People who do pay more – even if it’s really just a corporate contract paying more – should get more, and really – they already do. Every airline has special services teams and rules that can be bent for corporate contract flyers and high value customers. That environment has existed for decades.

Someone spending $24,000 on one flight should be treated really well, and I don’t see why they can’t have major benefits instantly with an airline when they drop that kind of coin on January 1st, rather than waiting an entire year grinding it out. If you don’t have to grind, why would you? It only makes sense to offer someone spending a lot all the best perks with immediate effect. You want more spend. Duh. But uprooting the program for everyone else makes no sense.

In fact, there was a time not long ago (which probably still exists) where if you were willing to pre-pay roughly $50k of flying with an airline like American, they’d give you invite only ConciergeKey status from day one.

Of course, there were terms, stipulations and other things involved, but there has always been ways for big spenders to get rewarded in ways loyal flyers do not, and yet both continue to live harmoniously in other programs.

Money talks, no argument here – but how dare you marginalise those select loyal few who actually believe in your airline or your program most. Most high value customers don’t care who they fly with. Plus, it’s either not their money, or you just happened to be lucky.

United’s MileagePlus changes accomplished one thing, and one thing only in my mind – they marginalised the only people who actually were willing to fight for their airline and defend it, no matter how many times it had been dragged down the aisles.

In recent years, that hasn’t been an easy pill to swallow, either.  Sure, you could say that they weeded out the bloated ranks of people receiving perks, but there were plenty of other creative ways to do that anyway, without making people feel abandoned. And since United, like other US based airline loyalty programs excluded its own top tier fliers from lounges domestically anyway, it’s not like they really did much in terms of physically clearing space.

Someone daring enough to fly via Chicago in winter, because their beloved United flies there is a promoter of a brand. They have bought into the ecosystem, probably tell their friends and at that point, United is owning the “wallet share” from that customer. The reason most people stick with a loyalty program isn’t because of how great it is, but rather how hard they feel it might be to go to a new program without the benefits they enjoy so much.

In other words, chances are that other airlines aren’t getting much, if anything from a loyal United flyer. That’s worth a lot, even if the person isn’t spending $24k a year. Money out of a competitors pocket is pretty valuable…

But when you say that the emotional connection is gone, and it’s just a transaction, as United has now done – it creates something United probably did not have the foresight to realise. If someone, or an entity they work for does have $24k, what might happen when they do a bit of research? Is United going to win the award for best economy seat? No. Premium economy? No. Business Class? Ha, no. Lounges, yeah – it’s a no, again.

So why would someone hand United $24k at that point? If it’s just about money, get as much for your money as you can. That definitely ain’t United…

united polaris business class cabinI can think of at least 7 cabins I’d rather fly in business or first class above anything on offer from United, and if our relationship is just money, I’d rather get more for my $24k than a mediocre product with people who are one step from the picket line in charge of my service. Does United really want to start a war where the only deciding factor in every purchase is product?

As far as the future of loyalty programs goes, I actually think Accor, the hotel chain has it fairly right. You can qualify purely on money, or you can qualify the old fashioned way, with nights. Someone can stay 1 night in the Plaza Penthouse and earn top tier status on day one, but so can the road warrior staying in $60 a night hotels for 60+ nights. Everyone wins and money talks, but so does loyalty and owning the wallet share.

The exits are clearly marked, folks…

Get the travel tips you can't afford to miss delivered right to your inbox. Subscribe below!

Get the travel tips you can't afford to miss delivered right to your inbox. Subscribe below!

* indicates required

You have Successfully Subscribed!