United/Continental drops Virgin Atlantic partnership

The frequent flyer partnership between United AirlinesContinental subsidiary and Virgin Atlantic is being terminated as of February 13, 2012. This date is the last for mileage earning or redemption ticket issuance on the partner, with award redemptions valid for one year from that date, assuming they are issued. This isn’t a particularly surprising move, though it is a bit of a downgrade in terms of the MileagePlus program.

The Continental/Virgin relationship made a lot of sense when it was originally launched. Continental had a minimal amount of traffic into London at all and none into Heathrow due to the Bermuda II restrictions. It allowed Continental to market flights into Heathrow under their own code and to sell onward connections using Heathrow as a transit point. Since the establishment of the Open Skies agreement between the US and the EU, however, Continental has had access to Heathrow and has steadily increased flights there. Add in the merger with United and there are only a few cities now where Virgin had nonstop service ex-LHR that the combined United doesn’t and those are less significant today.

The end of the partnership is rather unfortunate on the redemption side of the frequent flyer program in particular as Virgin has often had decent award availability, especially in their Upper Class business class product and especially close to the travel date. I’ve taken advantage of that a couple times and, though I’m not a huge fan of the product, it is still an option being lost which is unfortunate.

Also unfortunate is the timing of the announcement. The company provided barely 4 weeks’ notice of the change, one that they have likely known about for some time. It is a shame that the changes to partners and earning rates are trickling out so slowly as part of the merger process.

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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. In the end, the really sad part is that those bought or award tickets on Virgin’s metal won’t be available. While United/Contential remains a “Legacy/Flag” carrier, Virgin’s LCC product to the UK remains a far superior product. Of course United terminated the deal! When an otherwise United passenger can get the same flight on Virgin – for dollars or for miles, they opt for Virgin! No homework necessary here. Even as a LCC, Virgin offers a far better product to the UK than does United. Again, whether it is hard dollars or earned miles, most folks with the option chose Virgin simply becasue United’s basic product is so [fill in word of choice]. They got tired of paying Virgin for interline carriage that they should have been delivering on their own metal. Sadly, United and the other US legacy/flag carrier just don’t get it. Their international products are not even close to those offered by most foreign carriers. They have an absolute lock on domestic service and they offer a little a possible. When they treat long-haul international routes as long ‘domestic’ flights, those hefty dollars flow to the foreign carriers and easily. Most international frequent flyers have standing orders with their bookers to avoid US flags without specific approval. At the international level it is not about cost. It is about service. Sadly, the US flaggers just don’t get it.

  2. At least it wasn’t effective immediately. I think we all knew it was coming for a month or two. (Well, those of us who follow this stuff.) I’m thinking right now whether I should redeem some miles for Upper Class to LHR while I still can.

    1. Indeed, Scottrick, I think we all knew it was coming. I’m still disappointed in the slow dribble of partner information we’ve received in general from the company and this is just another example of that. As for whether to do it or not, I’ve had two VS UC experiences and that was more than enough.

      As to the quality of the product, Cook, have you flown both? Recently? I’d say that the CO BF product kicks ass over VS UC, other than the lounge. And VS is most definitely not a Low Cost Carrier in any sense of the term. Continental got their own metal operating on the routes just as soon as the politicians let them; the Bermuda II treaty prohibited all but four airlines from offering service into LHR from the USA.

  3. If you have Amex MR points to dump, Hawaiian Airlines offers good redemption value on certain VS routes. 140,000 miles will take you from the mainland U.S. to anywhere VS flies in Upper Class. That’s a pretty decent value for LAX to CPT, HKG or SYD (the long way round).

  4. I could be wrong, but I think Cook may be comparing Y products. Glad to see American adding free beer and wine because you need it to stand the Y product of most domestic carriers.

    1. Even the Y product on VS is mostly hype, I think. They used to truly be above and beyond others in the market. Now they’re just living off that reputation while not really providing anything all that different or better than the newer products that the US-flagged carriers are rolling out, certainly not a better IFE system than the CO AVOD on all their 752/772 planes, and the 764s are getting an even better version than that. Seat pitch sucks but that’s pretty much the same across the board, and the E+ option on UA/CO or Economy Comfort on DL or whatever AA is calling theirs is much more affordable than the Premium Economy product VS is selling, especially with the Premium Economy getting hit with the higher APD.

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