The first – and hopefully only – announcement of changes to the 2013 United Airlines MileagePlus program came out late this evening and unfortunately it is a downgrade. The company is shuffling the fare buckets they use for awards in to first class on their 3-cabin planes, making it harder for top elites to get access to rewards in that cabin. The current version of the program has both upgrades and awards for top elites redeeming into the ON fare bucket. Other members redeem into the O bucket for awards and ON for upgrades. Effective February 1, 2013 the ON bucket will be used only for upgrades. From the announcement:
[W]e currently use the same fare class (ON) for both upgrades and Saver travel awards redeemed from MileagePlus Premier Platinum, Premier 1K and Global Services accounts. A consequence of this pairing has been fewer seats being available for upgrades.
To remedy this imbalance, we will begin using ON exclusively for upgrades into United Global First and United First on 3-cabin aircraft effective February 1, 2013. Having a dedicated fare class for these upgrades will enable us to offer differentiated availability. To accommodate this change, we will no longer offer a dedicated fare class for Saver travel awards redeemed from MileagePlus Premier Platinum, Premier 1K and Global Services accounts. Instead, the inventory once used for ON class will be allocated to O class, which will become the sole booking class used for Saver Awards in United Global First and United First on 3-cabin aircraft.
The spin is decent enough and I understand the direction they’re coming from. At the same time, it is not hard to see that this is a bit of a downgrade for the top elites in that they no longer have access to extra awards. There’s something to be said for the theory that the top elites are the only ones who will have enough miles to redeem for those seats anyways, though CC churners/expense accounts seem to build mileage balances pretty quickly, too. If this is the only downgrade to the program then I’m OK with it, mostly because I cannot see redeeming for UA first class as a matter of habit. But it is definitely a downgrade. Such is life with the loyalty programs…