United Airlines is adjusting the way its top MileagePlus elite members will pay for upgrades. Starting on 4 December 2019 the carrier will retire its Global and Regional Premier Upgrades in favor of PlusPoints, a “neutral currency” that can be redeemed for the growing variety of upgrade products the carrier offers across its global network. Luc Bondar, President of MileagePlus and Vice President of Loyalty United Airlines described the change as allowing the carrier to “have a broader range of price points for the different upgrades, more closely aligned to the value of those upgrades.” And, at least to start, none of the upgrade costs are increasing.
We’re really excited about this program. It brings tremendous freedom and flexibility for our members. It is more customizable. We have confidence that it will generate a ton more value to our Platinum and 1K Premier members. We think that our premier members around the world are going to take notice of the improvements that we’ve made with this industry-leading change.– Luc Bondar, President of MileagePlus and VP Loyalty of United Airlines
The RPUs will convert to 20 PlusPoints while GPUs will convert to 40 points. Domestic/regional upgrades from economy to first class will continue to cost 20 PlusPoints while Polaris upgrades will cost 40 (assuming a W fare or higher), just like today. But the upgrade from economy to the Premium Plus premium economy cabin will now cost 20 points while Premium Plus to Polaris will cost 30. Both of those are cheaper than under the GPU/RPU scheme.
In addition to the new pricing scheme United is introducing the ability to fully manage PlusPoints upgrades via its app. Bondar notes that the company “needs to meet customers where they are, to make it easy and simple for customers to self-service their upgrade needs.”
Breaking the (old) rules
United is also adding two new reward options with the PlusPoints program. One allows a discount economy class ticket to upgrade to Polaris for 80 points, the equivalent of using 2 GPUs today to upgrade a cheaper fare. That will still have the same inventory limits around confirming the Polaris seat, but it creates an option where one did not exist before.
Bondar also described an option to skip the waitlist in some scenarios. “This isn’t going to be available all the time, but from time-to-time we’ll allow our 1K members to use the additional PlusPoints to effectively skip the upgrade waitlist on select international flights. This is a great option for members planning in advance for a special trip, often leisure, where they want to confirm the upgrade in advance and the certainty that they’ll get it. It will simply cost more points. We think that will be very meaningful for some members.” Because it is a “promotional offering” the pricing on that reward was not shared, nor did Bondar offer much in the way of details on what types of flights would have the seats available, but knowing that it is an option is an interesting twist to the program.
The “Skip Waitlist” offering comes with significant restrictions. Passengers will be expected to request the upgrades more than 30 days from the departure date, for example. These upgrades will also be non-transferable and non-refundable if travel plans change. An exception on the refund front will be made in case of irregular operations where the upgrade cannot be delivered.
Another significant change comes in the way the points are deducted as itineraries are waitlisted. Today the GPU or RPU is removed at the time of request. Under the PlusPoints scheme that shifts such that the points are only deducted when the upgrade clears. This allows a MileagePlus member to oversubscribe their upgrade requests, so long as they are comfortable with paying for the upgrade on whatever clears. If they run out of PlusPoints to cover pending upgrades those will simply be passed over should the inventory open.
One rules change that comes across as a downgrade to the program is related to the way PlusPoints will be deducted on a multi-segment itinerary where not all the flights clear. Today if a Polaris upgrade fails to clear the short-haul upgrade is a freebie to the passenger. Under the new scheme that short-haul upgrade will be charged at 20 PlusPoints, (40 charged when it clears then 20 refunded after travel when the Polaris segment doesn’t clear), the cost of just requesting the short-haul upgrade on its own. Depending on the trip and other factors that policy may leave some members feeling that they’ve overpaid for a short upgrade when the “real” target fails to come through. And, while the company will allow passengers to request only the long-haul segment for upgrade to avoid that cost, United also says “It is not possible to add segments to an upgrade request after it has been placed,” meaning no adding the short segment in after the longer one clears.
An upgrade by any other name…
In the end United’s goal is to change the currency and to get over the fact that a GPU is, in many cases, too large an upgrade unit for the value passengers receive. “Across the board our underlying policies for upgrades and awards all remain the same. The core change is the currency and the different ways that currency can be applied to different types of upgrades.” So policies around waitlist priority, inventory release and other related bits are not expected to change. This also includes the incremental earnings for every 25,000 PQMs after reaching 1K status, though they will now credit at 40 PlusPoints rather than one GPU. The PlusPoints issuance timing and expiry policy will also follow the current GPU/RPU model.