June 22, 2013
United Airlines Now Requires Spending To Reach Status Levels
If you only fly on the rare occasion, you may wonder why you are in boarding group five on United Airlines. What deems that someone is in boarding group two or even three? Well, United Airlines offers pre-boarding to its “Global Services” members, which is a covert way of saying those who fly as much as George Clooney in the film Up in the Air.
Moreover, those fliers likely work for a company that spends a small fortune on United Airlines, and that’s why United’s Chicago terminal even has a special entrance for Global Services. The reason is that Motorola, which had been based in Chicago pre-Google takeover, typically had its employees fly on the airline.
Back to the boarding. To get in boarding group one, you need to have a seat in first class or be a 1K flier. What exactly is 1K? It is the premier status level for those who fly at least 100,000 miles each and every year. To get in boarding group two you need to fly at least 25,000 miles a year.
United’s premier levels range from silver for 25,000, gold for 50,000 and platinum for 75,000. Fly a million miles and you automatically become a premier gold for life. For those who only fly once or twice a year, these levels are simply unobtainable.
However, for those, like this reporter, who do spend too much time on planes, United Airlines is one that makes it increasingly challenging. Just this week the airline sent out an email to its premier members noting that not only will we have to actually fly but we’ll have to spend!
To reach 2015 premier silver levels I’ll have to fly 25,000 miles or 30 segments, but I’ll also have to spend $2,500. Now in truth that isn’t too hard to do, given the cost of tickets. To reach gold status, however, that means dropping $5,000. What isn’t clear is what will actually count for those premium qualifying dollars.
This is because sometimes third-parties pay for (that is purchase) the tickets for me. If I need to report on a new product sometimes the magazine or outlet pays for the ticket. Other times a company might buy a ticket for me to fly out to meet with them. The issue here is that this is the norm in the world of business travel.
Even George Clooney in the aforementioned movie likely had someone in a travel department buying the tickets. So, the question is whether these dollars are in fact tied to the specific ticket. If not, this could suddenly knockout 90 percent of travelers. Thus, the answer has to be that any dollar spend on a ticket is tied to the traveler, regardless of where the bill goes.
So, why is United Airlines doing this? Well, one reason is that they give away perks to premier members, such as free checked bags. This is a way of recouping what is “free.” United Airlines is making all United purchases qualifying. Thus, if you spend $50 to check an extra bag it counts. If you buy a meal on the plane for $5 it counts. In other words, United Airlines has learned that business travelers can be cheap and this is a way to get them to open the wallet.
For example, I personally never paid for the Red Carpet Club. I fly a lot, but I would rather wander the airport and browse books and magazines instead of sitting in a club that could cost several hundred dollars a year. But if I’m worried that I won’t reach the $2,500 or $5,000 mark, I might opt to pay for the service of using the club to put me over the top.
For those who fly 25,000, or even 50,000, miles this is a brilliant move; for United. I’m not at the airport every week, so most of the time I wouldn’t use the club. Other times, I might not have time to even stop at one as I’m there to catch my flight, not to hang out in the longue.
All this is just another move by the airline to squeeze out a little more profit. And there is nothing wrong with a profit. The problem as I see it is that they are making me once again question why I’m flying an airline that treats loyal customers so badly. Maybe they really only do care about those Global Service Flyers.
Of course, that can’t be the case. On one trip my boarding group two meant I was the first on the plane. So, clearly I think United Airlines should be treating me a little better, if not exactly special.
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