United quietly but firmly kicked its elite frequent flyers in the pants again. It may be a relatively minor change, but it’s yet another devaluation in a program that’s getting less attractive all the time.
For years, Premier members of the Mileage Plus program have received “500-mile” coupons (now electronic) that upgraded your North American flights from coach to first class. (You get four of these coupons every time you reach 10,000 flown miles on the airline. One coupon can upgrade you for 500 miles of distance flown; thus the “500-miler” moniker.) If you couldn’t use your 500-milers, they’d expire after one year, but all was not lost: They converted to 500 redeemable frequent flyer miles in your account.
Not any more.
In another “enhancement” of the Mileage Plus program, 500-milers won’t convert to frequent flyer miles upon expiration anymore. They’ll just expire worthless if you don’t cash them in. (And let me tell you from personal experience, they’ve gotten harder and harder to actually put to use.)
But the real problem isn’t the policy change itself. It’s the fact that they deceptively changed the policy without letting anyone know, hoping that customers wouldn’t find out until it was too late.
If your 500-milers expire on or after June 1, 2007, you won’t be able to convert them to miles. If they expired before that date, and your expired upgrades didn’t convert automatically, call and ask them to properly credit your account. The new rule was quietly inserted into pages like this one.
I found out the hard way, when I called United yesterday to gripe about some missing miles. In the course of the conversation (which is another, unrelated story of frustration, with double-secret rules that aren’t published on any website…) the supervisor (“service director”) I spoke to informed me of the policy change. He was apologetic, and offered this as small consolation: “The marketers at corporate decided this… we just have to enforce these new rules as soon as they come down to us.”
And sure enough, this change was on the books. A quick web search yielded the genealogy of the policy. A FlyerTalk thread from January points to an early version which read: “Complimentary 500-mile E-upgrades expire with no mileage conversion.” That was revised to the current rules, which are slightly tamer: “500-mile E-Upgrades expiring on or after June 1, 2007 will not be converted to miles.”
Grumbling over the policy change is legitimate, but my real beef is the airline’s unethical means of imposing the change. There was no e-mail, no letter, no notification of any kind. Clearly, the airline hoped that people wouldn’t notice that their upgrades weren’t converting. Instead, they buried the change in a rarely-visited page of their website, which, in my book, doesn’t meet their “customer commitment” to disclose changes to their frequent flyer program.
Is this a huge deal, financially? No. But it’s completely disrespectful toward the airline’s most loyal customers. This lousy approach to customer loyalty and retention falls right in line with other recent devaluations, such as the backdated expiration dates on miles in “inactive” accounts, or the loud announcement and subsequent quiet elimination of discounted short-hop awards.
Maybe United should consider the evidence regarding the relationship between good customer service and stock prices. The stocks of companies with high customer service satisfaction ratings increase in value more than their low-class counterparts. United recently came in dead-last in the airline sector in the ACSI survey.
United’s lack of respect for its customers is truly disappointing. And it’s just further proof that their claim to be a “premium” carrier is all talk.
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