Mileage Plus President Interview

Mileage Plus President Interview

USA Today recently ran an interview with the president of United Mileage Plus, Graham Atkinson, and the article gives frequent flyers an insight into the Mileage Plus program. Speaking of the current downturn in travel and how Mileage Plus is reacting to it, Atkinson had this to say, “… because demand is down, we have more empty seats on the planes than we would normally have. And the dynamics of that has enabled us to spend quite a lot of time focusing on how we can improve the seat availability and play with promotions.”

He continues, “… it allows us–very appealingly–to test concepts and see what actually stimulates people to redeem awards … and (to learn) for the future as to how we might meet customers’ interests and wishes in the future.”

Of interest to Continental OnePass members, Atkinson spoke on what they can expect when the airline is welcomed into the Star Alliance: “Elite flyers on Continental will become Star Gold members in the Star Alliance. And as Star Gold members, they will earn EQMs when they travel on United or other Star partners. They will have–over time, the functionality won’t be in place from day one–a product called Star Alliance upgrade awards. They will also get priority boarding, priority check-in (and) priority security–where we offer that at key airports. They will get what we call Star Alliance privileged status. So they will get that on United. They will get access to lounges on us and (throughout the Star system). So they will get all the privileges that a ANA customer or an Air Canada customer gets on United.”

And through a question from a USA Today reader, Atkinson spoke to the question of the Economy Plus seats that used to be automatically given to Star Alliance Gold status members but who now have to pay for them. He said that this was a business decision and although he realizes the frustration that a US Airways Gold status member may feel, … “I don’t think that anything that’s happened since has made us believe that that prioritization wasn’t right.”

Another reader question addressed United’s policy of filtering Star Alliance awards so that even when a seat is available on another carrier, United does not offer that seat as a partner award. Atkinson mentions several factors including that every time a United customer redeems a flight on another carrier, United has to pay the other carrier for that seat and there has to be a “balance of trade” and that they would prefer people to fly United whenever possible.

He also mentions that he does not know for a fact that other Star Alliance carriers do not also do the same type of filtering even though it’s been reported in the press as a fact. Finally, “And if you look at our performance in terms of our awards over the past year, our awards on Star Alliance have actually gone up. I don’t think we are failing our customers, but there will be occasions on which someone could call the carrier and find there is availability and (then) call us and we would say that there wasn’t availability.”

Another reader question was why you can only book United and not Star Alliance partner award travel online. The short answer from Atkinson was, “It’s a technology issue” and he continues to explain some of the issues that make the process more difficult than it would seem.

Yet another reader question focused on United’s continued use of the more-limited 500-mile upgrade point system. “… it’s something we do need to look at … We are always looking at whether we’re in line (with competitors) or whether we need to change the way we do things. This is one of those (items) that sort of sits in the ‘active’ inbox rather than the ‘deferred and not-looking-at’ inbox.”

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