n.b. – This story first appeared in the APEX Editor’s Blog on 21 May 2013
For most airline loyalty programmes the only way to be a member is to be a person. Some recent news stories have highlighted how musical instruments (that require a seat!) can be thrown out of programmes or how points are not transferable upon death. United Airlines, however, is bucking the trend and changing its rules: small businesses are now eligible to become members in the MileagePlus programme.
The newly created MileagePlus Small business Network (SBN) is focused on allowing businesses to earn points rather than individuals. Company accountants need not get too excited about the possibility for collecting all the travel points, however; the scheme will still credit the points earnt for travel activities to the individual travellers. The new programme is simply another option for accruing miles via online shopping activities.
A couple of specific shopping partners are available only to Small Business Network customers but most of the shopping options and accrual rates are the same as for regular passenger accounts. And, in some cases, individual accounts even earn at better rates than the SBN accounts.
The online account information page is nearly identical, presenting the details of the business as though it is a normal traveller. A business obviously cannot earn elite status or have upcoming reservations and the programme rules explicitly prohibit SBN accounts from earning for travel. “Small Business Network members are not eligible to accrue mileage for flight activity,” notes United.
So, why the fuss about the new programme? It turns out that the SBN accounts are designed to permit some of the traditional programme rules to be broken. Points earnt in a SBN account can be transferred to individuals as part of a recognition or incentive programme without violating the rules against barter or sale. Points still cannot be used in lieu of proper payment for employees, however. And, according to the website, the ability to grant those points to individuals without paying a transfer fee is coming soon.
The potential up-side for the Small Business Network accounts is very real. Having points accrue in a centralized manner and freely transferrable to employees or others makes sense for many businesses and it certainly makes sense for United Airlines to attract more revenue through their online shopping portal.
Unfortunately, however, it appears that the current implementation was rushed out the door. Too many bits appear unfinished or unrefined. Perhaps once they get all the pieces in place it will be a compelling option for companies to earn a few extra points along the way, eventually passing them on to their employees or for the account manager to redeem for themselves.
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