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United-Continental Mileage Plus: big changes to program for 2012

By John Walton     Filed under: United Airlines, sydney, Melbourne, United, United-Continental, San Francisco, Los Angeles, star alliance, rewards programs, Star Alliance Silver, Star Alliance Gold, United Mileage Plus, frequent flyer programs

Significant changes are afoot to United Airlines' Mileage Plus frequent flyer program, as the airline continues its merger with fellow US carrier Continental. There are changes to elite status, upgrade priorities and more -- affecting how you earn and burn points.

With no Star Alliance airline based in Australia -- yet? Virgin Australia has been rumoured to be joining the airline -- mileage hounds may well have socked away their Star Alliance points to Mileage Plus.

That's especially true since United doesn't extend most of its frequent flyer benefits to other Star Alliance members' frequent flyers.

Here are the big changes for Australian travellers.

New elite tiers

United now has four elite tiers, up from three, with the biggest split-out happening at the lower end of the tier range.

To start with, you'll need four paid flight segments (which means a takeoff and landing) on United, Continental or Copa. So all your Air New Zealand or Singapore Airlines flights won't matter for status if you haven't also taken qualifying flights.

A United spokesperson confirmed to Australian Business Traveller that the airline's Melbourne-Sydney flights -- bookable only as part of a trans-Pacific flight -- will count as separate segments. So if you're flying Melbourne-Sydney-San Francisco-Sydney-Melbourne, that's four segments.

To qualify, you'll either need Premier Qualifying Miles (PQM) or Premier Qualifying Segments (PQS)

  • Premier Silver: 25,000 PQM or 30 PQS
  • Premier Gold: 50,000 PQM or 60 PQS
  • Premier Platinum: 75,000 PQM or 90 PQS
  • Premier 1K: 100,000 PQM or 120 PQS
  • Global Services: super-elite tier, by invitation only

Full fare economy ticket instant upgrades

More big news is that Premiers booking certain full-fare economy class tickets will be eligible for a business class upgrade at the time of ticketing. That's useful if your company insists on economy class travel.

The details: those tickets are Y and B booking class fare buckets for all Premiers, plus M fare buckets for top-tier Premier 1K passengers. Y fares will upgrade instantly if there's one spare seat in the cabin, while B and M have lower priority. If all that means nothing to you, quote those letters to your travel agent.

Fewer benefits for Silver members -- including Star Alliance Silver

Premier Silver and Star Alliance Silver cardholders now only get one 23kg checked bag free.

But only United's Silver members can access the extra-legroom Economy Plus seating for free, and -- in a change -- only now at check-in.

Of course, that also means that higher tier travellers who fly more frequently have proportionally greater change of scoring a few inches of extra legroom.

Upgrade priority at the airport

The way free upgrades for elite frequent flyers work at the airport will also be changing. The new order is:

  1. Global Services
  2. Full-fare economy upgrades (from Y, B, M fares)
  3. Paid upgrade certificates and miles-for-upgrade passengers, in tier, fare class and date of waitlist order
  4. Free upgrades, in tier and fare class order.

That means that any frequent flyer at or above the Premium Silver tier travelling on a full-fare economy ticket will clear an upgrade before just about everyone else.

Lifetime status million-milers

Million-milers will who hit lifetime benefits will also see changes, but if you fall into that category then you've probably already perused the full list of changes at United.com.

Got questions about how the changes will affect your Mileage Plus account? Leave a comment here or ask us on Twitter (@AusBT) and we'll find the answer or get it from United for you.

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About John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

 

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