Details on the new United unlimited upgrades scheme

As reported yesterday, United Airlines has made some significant changes to their elite upgrade program. They’re getting rid of certificate-based upgrades for the most part and switching to a status-based upgrade solution instead. This brings them in line with Continental, their new partner, and also makes their program operate similarly to several other legacy carriers in the USA. As with any change there will be winners and losers. In this case, however, it seems that the number of losers might outweigh the winners.

Here are some of the details as announced:

  • Upgrades will be processed starting at 120 hours for GS, 100 hours for 1K, 72 hours for a 1P and 48 hours for a 2P
  • Upgrades are for the ticketed passenger and up to one companion on the same PNR
  • Upgrades will be prioritized by status, fare bucket and time of ticketing (earlier is better)
  • Upgrades will apply to domestic segments on international itineraries
  • No double upgrades (Y –> F on 3 cabin planes)
  • No upgrades on p.s. transcon routes
  • CR-1s will be issued for the last time in Q1 2010
  • e500s will no longer be issued starting in 2010 and cannot be purchased
  • SWUs will remain

So who wins and who loses?

The top tier elites – GS and 1Ks win for the most part. They’re much more likely to get their upgrades and they don’t have to worry about managing their certs or buying extra e500s if they are running low. The lower tier elites are definitely losing in many cases. Because there is no longer a need to manage certs upgrades on shorter and less desirable flights will no longer be available for lower tier elites. And everyone loses on the lack of upgrades for p.s. flights.

Everyone who enjoys confirming upgrades in advance also loses, as they are not going to have CR-1s available in any reasonable quantity as 2010 comes to a close. That means advance upgrades will only happen if SWUs or miles are redeemed. Ditto for folks who like to upgrade a companion. It depends on how United programs the system, but limiting upgrades to only one companion and only if they are on the same reservation is quite a change from the existing policies.

Losing out on the CR-1 upgrade certificates is also a major pain point for United elites. The certs are pretty easy to earn and are incredibly valuable. And they are going away. Sure, there is a cooling off period where they’ll still be earned (into early 2010) and redeemable. But no more new ones hurts. It slightly increases the value of the points earned since they’ll be the best way to upgrade going forward.

Another interesting factor is that United has quite a few planes with very small forward cabins. Their A319s only have 8 F seats. Lower tier elites can pretty much kiss those upgrades goodbye. And while Continental also has a few planes with small cabins, they are generally only used on shorter flights; United uses their A319s on transcons. That is going to hurt.

Free upgrades on domestic segments of international itineraries is nice, but those were always upgradable under the old cert system, too, so no huge change there. It will make it a bit less fun to use one e500 for an upgrade from LAX-HNL-SFO (yes. that works), but if the upgrade happens anyways who cares.

This move brings United incredibly close to Continental in terms of their upgrade schemes. The only substantial difference is the timings of the upgrade windows. Pretty much everything else matches. That means there is a VERY good chance that Continental and United can start offering reciprocal upgrades as they align their programs. Of course, further details on that won’t come out until after Continental officially moves into Star Alliance and is able to officially start tying systems and programs in with United. Lots more fun to come.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I think this is going to be a great improvement to UAs upgrade program. It does thake away my incentive though to fly UA once I have reached a premier threshhold. I fly a lot of short haul flights on planes with no 1st class. I used to focus on flying UA metal even after reaching 1P to collect e500s, with that gone, I can fly UA or US with no gain/loss.

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