United’s MileagePlus program first took flight on May 6, 1981 — exactly 40 years this week. To celebrate, the airline scheduled a special Boeing 737 MAX hop from Houston to Chicago — UA Flight 1981 — including gate celebrations, gifts for passengers onboard and a mid-flight trivia session.
While the celebration was a complete surprise for passengers, United shared its plans with TPG, so I booked Flight 1981 and joined in on the fun.
One highlight was an opportunity to sit down with Luc Bondar, the head of United’s MileagePlus program, to chat about what flyers should expect over the next 40 years — and, more specifically, the rest of 2021.
Bondar emphasized the program’s gradual shift to expanding partnerships — through co-branded credit cards, like the New United Quest Card, but also growing earning opportunities, with individual partners like Hertz and Marriott, as well as more broadly with the MileagePlus X app.
According to Bondar, roughly 97% of MileagePlus redemptions are for travel — members recognize that award travel generally offers the best value, and opt to save up their miles for flights. Bondar expects that trend to continue over time, but with an even greater emphasis on earning miles through partner spend, as opportunities continue to grow over the years.
At the moment, it’s a bit challenging to think beyond the next few months, let alone 40 years down the line. Like most United elites, as a Premier 1K member who certainly isn’t flying enough to requalify for status “the old-fashioned way,” I’ve been especially eager to hear how the airline will continue to help travelers close the gap.
United has already added several promotions to help elites earn status this year, despite a steep drop in flying. First, the airline reduced qualification requirements, before starting current elites off with credits at the beginning of 2021, and making it easy to earn another boost in Q2.
With varying comfort levels among elites, United worked to develop a promotion that works for everyone. “We’ve got to recognize that not everyone’s in the same place, so you can’t go one-size-fits-all,” Bondar said. “Some are back flying a lot, some are thinking about it and some are saying ‘I’m just not ready.’ ”
While Bondar says we may see more promotions, I wouldn’t expect to see another year-long extension, like the one we saw in 2020.
“I don’t think we’ll need it, when I look at what’s going on across the system, and across our Premier base,” Bondar said. “We saw in April a really significant leap in the number of Premiers coming back for their first flight. We’ve got these different bonus promotions that we’ll run — we’ll run another promotion in Q3 and we’ll run another one in Q4. We structure those in such a way that it’s fair for everyone, but we certainly want to motivate customers to come back to flying.”
Another status extension could make it challenging for United to accomplish that last goal. “At the end of the day we’re an airline, and our program is in support of our core business, and so we need to make sure that what we do aligns really well with those commercial goals while at the same time recognizing the multi-year relationships and investments that we have with these great customers,” Bondar said.
It’s possible that some invite-only Global Services members could get a pass if they aren’t able to travel this year, though.
“We’ll do the right thing by our best customers,” Bondar said. “We want them back flying, and their collective activity will help shape what it looks like in terms of what’s required in order to make the qualification. Those qualifications move every year, and we adjust every year to ensure that we are accurately reflecting and inviting our very best customers into Global Services. And we’ll do the same thing this year, recognizing that it’s not a normal year. It’s almost like grading to a curve — we’ll end up with a portion of our customers that we’ll invite into Global Services as a function of how the whole population performs.”
While United is never specific about qualification requirements, Bondar emphasized a desire to keep the airline’s top spenders engaged, even if they haven’t been willing (or able) to fly during the pandemic.
“Every year, we’re always very thoughtful about those members who have shown a long history of loyalty and consistent performance, and if — for whatever reason — if they have a year where things fall off, we do the right thing by them. It’ll be the same this year — taking care of our very best and making sure we do the right thing by them will be a really key aspect of shaping up what that population looks like going forward.”
Deep-pocketed corporate travelers will be key to United’s revenue growth as business travel returns. If you’ve been an engaged Global Services member for several years, it sounds like United will do everything it can to maintain your loyalty even if you aren’t able to fly right now.
Meanwhile, back on Flight 1981, every crew member onboard was also celebrating 40 years with the airline — the pilots and flight attendants have been with the carrier just as long as MileagePlus, and executives led customers in a round of applause just before boarding.
While Premier 1K members have been lucking out with more frequent upgrades during the pandemic, 19 of the 20 first-class seats were booked before departure, with only one lucky flyer scoring an upgrade.
Travelers in first class and economy alike boarded to find the same goodie bag at their seat, though. It included a USB charger from Marriott, a deck of playing cards, an annual subscription to the Timeshifter app, a commemorative pen, post cards and a trivia form to use during the flight. I was especially excited to see the Kind bar, since onboard economy food is limited to mini bags of pretzels and Biscoff cookies at the moment.
After the beverage service, Bondar sprang into action with an engaging trivia session, including a few especially challenging questions. Here’s what he asked, along with the correct answers:
- When was the MileagePlus program program founded? (May 6, 1981)
- MileagePlus has over 100,000,000 members — true or false? (True)
- How long do members have to use their miles after earning them? (Forever)
- Besides flying, MileagePlus members can earn miles in 50 different ways — true or false? (True, but it’s technically 100+)
- Who was the first non-airline MileagePlus partner? (Avis, but the current car partner is Hertz)
- MileagePlus completed its merger with Continental’s loyalty program in 2012, what was the name of that program? (OnePass)
- What is United’s Instagram handle? (@United)
- United was a founding member of which alliance, which launched in 1997? (Star Alliance)
- In which decade did United roll out its Million Miler program? (1990s)
- In the last 10 years, how many billions of miles have members donated to United’s partner charities? (1.7 billion miles)
While nobody got all 10 questions right — that last one turned out to be a bit too specific — two flyers got nine questions and four got eight. Bondar handed out year-long Clear memberships to those six winners, before heading back up front to announce that every passenger would get a free year of Clear.
With a flight time of roughly two hours, and plenty of entertainment onboard, I ended up being just fine in economy. I had been tempted to redeem some of my PlusPoints to score a higher spot on the upgrade list, but I’m glad I held onto them. It’s unclear that they’ll be extended for another year, as United offered in 2020. But, as Bondar points out, there could be many more opportunities to travel internationally later in 2021.
“We’ll look to see what’s needed,” Bondar said, regarding another PlusPoints extension. “It’ll be based on whether or not customers have had opportunities to use them and get value from them. I think the second half of the year is going to look very different than the first half of the year. As borders open, as we’re all traveling vaccinated, it’s going to create opportunity to get out in the world.”
Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy
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