Over the past couple days there has been a lot of coverage (Gary’s; Points Guy’s, among others) regarding the Chase Mileage Plus Explorer card, the new co-branded card that will be the offering for folks who want to earn points with United Airlines. I’ve read over some of the details, both the official press release bits as well as the fine print and I’m definitely seeing things that are different, mostly for the worse. But are the changes really all that bad?
I don’t think so.
First up, there are two immediately obvious downgrades to the program that holding the card waives: mileage expiration and last seat award availability.
The mileage expiration decision – miles will expire after 18 months of no activity – sucks for consumers, but really only a little bit. This decision shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given that Jeff Foland, the guy calling the shots at Mileage Plus, recently stated that he prefers to interact with customers who remain engaged with the brand rather than everyone out there. The points are kept alive with nearly any activity on the account and there are literally dozens of ways to trigger such activity at little to no cost.
In the mean time, expiring the miles as a liability on the books means the total costs of running the loyalty programs are kept a bit lower and that’s good for the folks paying attention. It means that award cost inflation and other devaluations that definitely affect all customers are less likely. If that comes at the expense of folks who aren’t paying attention to their points, so be it. I have no problem with that. Besides, with tools like goMiles.com out there that can track your points expiry for you and alert you – including sepcific instructions for how to extend the life of the points – it really takes a lot of apathy to lose them.
The decision on last seat award inventory is a bit harder to swallow but, again, not too much of a surprise. Continental has had a policy for some time whereby non-elite members do not have access to any seat on the plane for an award redemption, even if they are willing to pay double (or more) miles for the award. These "rule buster" awards are generally a pretty bad value anyways, though every now and then they are a necessary evil and a decent deal if flight dates/times are fixed. I recently had a client I was helping with an award booking and they insisted that the non-stops flights on those dates were nonnegotiable. They were also willing to pay the extra points to have them. Ultimately they still got decent value for the points versus a revenue ticket but it was hard for me to stomach as there were connecting options available at the saver level.
With the new policy, assuming they follow the legacy Continental rules, premium cabin inventory will track similar to the Z bucket (generally used for discount premium cabin seats) and coach inventory will track around M, a reasonably high coach fare. It is debatable whether this approach is better or worse than the Delta approach of three tiers. In that model everyone pays more for last seat availability in the "high" tier of their award chart, elite or otherwise, but at least everyone has access.
The other details that the new card includes or reveals are pretty much non-events to me. They’re keeping the upgrades on award tickets for elites, a Continental benefit. They’re keeping the lounge passes (2/year after paid renewal) which can have some value. And card holders get to board after all the elites but ahead of non-card holders, copying US Airways and Delta on that last benefit. Nothing all that special here.
Overall this milestone seems to me to be not all that significant. Am I missing something deeper here?