United Mileage Plus – May, 26 2006

United Mileage Plus – May, 26 2006

When United Mileage Plus issued a press release entitled “New Benefits and Changes,” those fluent in marketing-ese knew something was amiss. The release, which was conspicuously issued late on a Friday, was most assuredly NOT good news.

Sure there were a few spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine go down, but what stuck in members’ minds and craws was the announcement that award levels will increase in October.

Let’s have the bad news first.

First and foremost, the basic domestic saver award — that staple of the frequent flyer universe — will not change. It remains at 25,000 miles. The first-class domestic award (60,000 miles) remains the same as well, but then again, no one has seen first-class domestic service since rocks were soft and dinosaurs ruled the earth.

No, in the basic domestic saver award category, only business-class awards increase, from 40,000 to 45,000 miles.

Economy saver awards to Hawaii also stay the same, but business and first-class Saver awards to the islands jump 25 and 12.5 percent respectively, to 75,000 and 90,000 miles.

Saver flights Down Under (Australia and New Zealand) jump in all classes by 20,000 miles. This isn’t a huge increase for the high-rollers (120,000 miles to 140,000 miles is only a jump of about 16 percent), but the extra 20,000 miles on economy-level awards works out to a hefty 33-percent increase.

Unrestricted Standard awards increase almost across the board: domestically, to Europe, South America, and Australia/New Zealand.

Within the U.S., both coach and business-class domestic awards will increase by 10,000 miles, to 50,000 and 90,000 miles. Standard awards to Hawaii jump 10,000 miles in economy, and 30,000 miles in business and first class.

Europe, South America, and Australia/New Zealand Standard awards jump between 10 and 50 percent, depending on class of service.

But wait, as they say, there’s more.

Also beginning Oct. 16, United will begin charging a $70 fee for award travel ticketed six or fewer days prior to departure, and a $50 fee for award travel ticketed between seven and 13 days prior to departure. Fees will be waived for 1K Mileage Plus and Global Services members.

So there’s the bad news. What about the good?

Well, United has promised that at least through March 15 of 2007, a “percentage” of seats on every flight to every international and domestic United destination will be set aside for Saver awards. One sort of assumed this was the case anyway, and without some transparency (what percentage?), the promise is anticlimactic at best.

In addition, Mileage Plus will continue to offer its Short Haul Saver awards, which enable members to take short trips using fewer miles, through the rest of this year. Flights up to 700 miles each way require only 15,000 miles.

A mixed bag, to be sure. To be fair, these new award levels are still well within the industry’s standard range, and United at least provided members with six-month’s notice. But more booking fees? What don’t we pay for on “free” travel these days?

Kudos on keeping the short-haul awards. We suspect this is turning out to be a win-win situation for both United and its members. The airline gets to unload some mileage liability, and members don’t have to spend transcontinental amounts on a trip to see Aunt Emily in the next state.

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