Continental and United announce reciprocity – aka The other shoe drops

Since the original partnership announcement between Continental and United Airlines almost 18 months ago there has been plenty of speculation about the exact details and which elites would see which benefits.  When United announced the wholesale changes to their elite upgrade upgrade scheme the writing was on the wall rather clearly.  And now the writing is on the Internet in the form of multiple press releases (and here) and other announcements.

So now that most of the details are out, what does it all mean?  For starters, all elites from both are eligible for upgrades on flights operated by either carrier.  There are some notable exceptions (p.s. service is still not eligible, for example) and some notable inclusions (Continental elites can now get free upgrades to Hawaii on United service).  The hierarchy for the upgrades depends on which carrier you are flying on – each is pretty much taking care of their own elites first for the most part – and it breaks down like this:

On Continental Metal On United Metal
  1. Continental Platinum Elite
  2. United Global Services
  3. United 1K
  4. Continental Gold Elite
  5. United Premier Executive
  6. Continental Silver Elite
  7. United Premier
  1. United Global Services
  2. United 1K
  3. United Premier Executive
  4. Continental Platinum Elite
  5. Continental Gold Elite
  6. United Premier
  7. Continental Silver Elite

One of the biggest quirks is that United’s second tier – for folks who fly 50,000-99,999 miles – get prioritized over Continental’s 75,000+ customers on United metal.  But on Continental metal they’re below the comparable tier so not all that crazy.

Probably the most significant change is that all Continental elites will have access to United’s Economy Plus seating.  United’s customers get access to Continental’s “premium” seats which are the exact same seats and pitch, just at the front of the plane.  That is definitely a rather lopsided win in favor of Continental’s elites.  Of course, Continental might decide to implement E+ at some point and even things out, but I’m not holding my breath.

Instant upgrades will also be available for all elites.  Elites on Y or B fares (and CO Platinum, UA 1K and UA GS on M fares) will access to the front cabin (B and M fares are capacity-controlled; Y has last-seat availability) on Continental flights.  And access to the exit row seats on Continental will be extended to United’s 1K and GS customers.

So that’s the bulk of the details…but what does it all mean?  At the end of the day the arrangement is remarkably similar to what Continental and Northwest Airlines had prior to Delta buying out NW.  It is pretty much full reciprocity as much as there can be given the minor differences in the two carriers’ products.  There are some cases where Continental elites will do better (mostly in E+ seating) and some where they will not (upgrade hierarchy on UA metal).  Similarly, United’s customers get access to upgrades and, for the top tiers, exit row seats.  I don’t really see the new policy causing a sudden swing in the number of folks choosing to fly on the partner’s metal or otherwise skewing the upgrade ratios all that badly.  Yes, there will be some CO elites now flying on UA, but there will also be the same in reverse. 

In the end, this is what partnerships and alliances are for.  The provide the customer with a reasonably consistent experience and benefits across multiple carriers.  More options and more destinations and better connections while not sacrificing the benefits of elite status earned on the home carrier.  It makes a ton of sense and the CO/UA version of such a deal isn’t such a bad one at all.

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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.