Opening Remarks – August, 23 2011

Opening Remarks – August, 23 2011

Change of Season, Change of Focus

For some readers, the question is where did the summer go? For others, goodbye winter and hello summer. Regardless, the change of seasons brings about a change of focus. As we head toward the end of the year, one’s thoughts typically turn to elite requalification. However, this year frequent flyers’ thoughts seem to be turning to United Airlines and its new and changing Mileage Plus program.

There’s been quite a bit of concern over the past months as to what the combined OnePass/Mileage Plus program will turn out to be. While “patience” might have been the advice to the grasshopper in the old “Kung Fu” TV show, that same advice is not wearing well with some members of Mileage Plus.

With the goal to create the best frequent flyer program from the best of these two existing frequent flyer programs, it’s a fair bet that each element of the new program won’t always live up to the “best” moniker. Here in September and October, many of the details will start to come forward and there is one particular element that a band of fellow frequent flyers is most worried about–the current “Infinite Elite” benefit that some members of OnePass enjoy.

I count myself in this group, having earned lifetime elite status years ago when Continental OnePass offered Infinite Elite Status for members who earned Gold Elite status for five consecutive years–1988 through 1992. Then, Gold Elite was the highest level of the OnePass three-tiered elite program–Silver and Bronze were the levels below Gold. In 1988 and 1989, 70,000 elite miles were needed to qualify for Gold Elite status; in 1990-1992, 60,000 elite miles were needed to qualify. Subsequent changes to the program in 1999 brought about the discontinuation of the Bronze level with Platinum becoming the highest tier in the program. With that change, OnePass did a considerable amount of decision-making and elevated this group of Infinite Elite to the new Platinum level, rather than continuing as lifetime Gold Elite. This decision was apparently supported by the then CEO Gordon Bethune, who, when answering a question about the intent to offer top-tier status replied, “You are correct in your understanding of what we meant to be lifetime top-tier status.” Well, Mr. Bethune is no longer at the wheel of Continental and Continental is not the surviving brand name of the United and Continental merger.

This looks to be an easy decision for the new Mileage Plus considering that this original group has surely downsized itself over the past nine years–some of those who have earned the benefit have likely retired and hardly use the benefit at all. Others are nearing the end of a loyal relationship with Continental, and while hard to imagine the airline being gone, they too will be diminishing the 75-100,000 miles they used to fly annually. And yes, there are others who are still proud road warriors, but what better place for them to continue to ply their craft than flying on United Airlines? As for those who might have left for other airlines–a note to each and an explanation of how much Mileage Plus honors their past patronage would certainly go a long way toward rekindling an “infinite elite.”

This all leads us to the two scenarios that this band of elite flyers dread: 1) that United may cancel the lifetime top-tier elite status since, in theory, they do not have to honor the commitments made to OnePass members; and 2) Infinite Elites may be demoted to an elite status below the top tier.

Speaking on behalf of this legion of frequent flyers, and I’m proud to be one of them, we’d be very comfortable retaining our lifetime status at the current 1K level of benefits. We have no grandiose idea that we belong in and among the Global Services membership, but do feel that by completing the challenge of Infinite Elite in a time when flying mattered most, not credit card spending or other distractions of loyalty, it seems fair that United Mileage Plus retain the high standards that led OnePass to elevate Infinite Elite to the Platinum level when replacing Gold Elite in 1999.

Thank you Mileage Plus for listening.

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