OPINION: United Airlines, fix your MileagePlus program

Once again, United Airlines has shown how little regard it has for its passengers, this time through the arcane rules of its MileagePlus frequent flier program.

In September, my wife and I flew United partner carrier Air Canada from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to MontrĂ©al, Quebec’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (YUL) and chose to have the miles credited to our MileagePlus accounts with partner airline United (NYSE:UAL).

A few weeks later, I checked the accounts to find that we had been credited for 50 percent of the actual mileage flown on the outgoing flights, from SEA to Toronto (YYZ) then the connecting flight to YUL, but inexplicably received credit for only 25 percent of the mileage for the return flights, from YUL to Vancouver, B.C. (YVR) then from YVR to SEA. A call to the MileagePlus customer service center did little to clarify the matter.

“You received the mileage going out because you were on a ‘K’ fare,” the very polite customer service rep told TheTravelPro, “but only 25 percent coming back because you were on an ‘A’ fare.”

That is not a reason, it’s an excuse; an excuse for short-changing their customers.

I booked the trip as a single round-trip ticket. There is absolutely no logical reason that I should not earn approximately the same mileage credit in both directions.

Table from United's MileagePlus web pages
Digging into United’s web pages in an attempt to unearth the rules about its MileagePlus program was equally uninformative. One small notation on one of its pages gave a small hint about the Byzantine rules I was trying to unravel. A table on the page titled, “Earning Miles on United” noted that flights on partner airlines “earn award miles based on the flight distance and the purchased fare class.”

Importantly, neither that page nor any other to which it linked carried any information indicating that a “K” fare on a partner airline would accrue at 50 percent while an “A” fare would accrue at half that rate. Another table on the page said a “K” fare on United or United Express would earn 50 percent of the miles flown, but an “A” fare would earn at 100 percent. Why does an “A” fare earn 100 percent on United but a paltry 25 percent on a partner airline? Another disconnect. How surprising.

United moved to a “revenue-based” frequent flier program effective March 1 and away from mileage-based awards, a move that makes a fair bit of business sense. Customers who spend more should get more; those who spend less earn less.

Under the rules that govern United’s program, flights operated by United or United Express earn miles based on the fare no matter which airline issued the ticket. Our tickets were on partner carrier Air Canada and were not issued by United but I must ask: Why should those tickets accrue mileage differently?

Does not the very term “partner” connote some degree of equality? That it apparently does not is something else United’s new CEO, Oscar Munoz, needs to fix.

Munoz has said publicly that he wants to “show that we’re listening,” that the airline is “committed to re-earning [customers’] trust,” and that it has to “deliver meaningful, everyday improvements.” Fixing its MileagePlus program is something it can do that will meet all three criteria.

Here is my bottom line: I paid my fare, I flew your partner airline, and now you are short-changing me. Things like this are among the many reasons the U.S. airline industry is held in such low regard by many members of the flying public.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

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