The good news, I suppose, is that the holy grail of the 25,000 point domestic round trip ticket hasn’t been violated. At least not completely. United Airlines announced their 2014 award chart changes today (90 day in advance, which is also a good thing, though some changes are immediate) and most of the news is bad. In some cases very bad. The changes include new rates for awards and new rules for upgrades. Yes, there are a few areas where the charts get better, but the vast majority of the changes are going to be bad for must customers.
The new chart includes different rates for travel on partners versus travel on United or Copa-operated flights. Not only does this even further increase the costs of some awards but it also makes figuring out the rates rather more challenging. I also find it a bit sad when looking at the ratio of red to green on the charts to note that much of the green comes on UA-only awards in regions where the carrier has no operations. Backing that data out the changes become even less pleasant. Africa becomes spectacularly more expensive, especially in premium cabins and even more if you don’t take the United flight from Houston to Lagos, the carrier’s only route serving the continent. The overall largest rate change I can find is North America to Middle East on a partner in first class; that award jumps from 75k one way to a whopping 140k, an 87% increase. Hawaii to Europe in first class is up 78% on partners as well. I suppose that the only silver lining there is that most partners don’t make their first class inventory available to United (and it is getting worse, not better) so it is unlikely those awards would have been redeemable anyways, even with the much higher rates.
Travel between North America and Europe, a rather common market, stays the same in economy class, though that rate was raised last year so the lack of increase now isn’t all that tremendous. For business class the rate goes up to 57.5k on UA metal or 70k on partners, increases of 15% and 40%, respectively. Yes, Lufthansa typically has a lot of inventory available on a relatively mediocre product. But now that’s going to cost a lot more to fly on.
There are a couple parts of the chart where things are a bit better. Awards between Asia and Oceania/Australia/New Zealand are, for the most part, a better price now. In some cases the decreases are as high as 40%, though there aren’t many such sweet spots. Hong Kong to Cairns via Guam is down to 25k each way from 45k in business class on UA metal. Other destinations in Australia will require partner flights raising the cost to 30k
Finally, Alaska has become its own award region, with flights between Alaska and the Lower 48 or Canada now incurring a 5,000 mile surcharge, though that’s only called out in a footnote, not actually given its own section in the charts.
I didn’t look closely at the rate changes for the upgrade charts. Those are, generally speaking, a bad value to begin with so I rarely put a lot of effort into them. A quick glance didn’t reveal anything astonishing but I probably missed something with the numbers. Alas, that’s not the real issue. There are some significant rule changes for upgrades in “regional” international markets, however, which are universally negative. For flights to/from Northern South America (i.e. narrow-body service to the region) and within Asia MileagePlus Premier members will no longer be eligible for complimentary upgrades. This applies to both instant-upgrades for full fare tickets and the regular CPU process the week prior to departure. These routes will also no longer be eligible for upgrades with Regional Premier Upgrade (RPU) instruments. And, while Global Premier Upgrade (GPU) instruments are still valid these routes will have a minimum fare requirement (W or higher) in line with routes typically operated as BusinessFirst or GlobalFirst, despite these regional flights having the lower service levels and cabin configurations in most cases. Finally, bringing these routes in line with other GPU-only markets, Premier members are no longer exempt from the co-pay portion of the upgrades when flying in these markets. The changes to the upgrade rules are effective immediately, not in February 2014. That’s doubly bad news for customers in these markets.
Is the program gutted?
It is hard to call any cycle of changes a gutting of the loyalty program. Yes, changes generally sucks and this cycle seems particularly bad given that it affects many routes, adds complexity to the program and, in the case of the upgrades, changes the rules in a manner which is not particularly commensurate with the level of service offered on the routes. In all of those ways these changes are bad. Combined with the less publicized (and still unconfirmed, despite several requests to various sources) changes to the unpublished rules in the program and things are certainly looking worse and worse for fans of the MileagePlus program.
This may not be a total gutting of the program but it is a significant devaluation of both points and elite status. Ouch, indeed.
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