Q&A: United Mileage Plus chief discusses upgrades, award blocking

Atkinson:The rationale behind that decision was essentially part of the creation of our "Options by United" programs and products. We identified an opportunity and an interest by customers who were loyal to United, but maybe didn't fly enough to (earn) Premier (status) or above and therefore get privileged access into it at no extra charge. We felt it was a good business decision for us. It's become a very interesting revenue stream.

(Economy plus has been) highly popular, by any measure, with people who are United loyalists. And that caused, obviously, some dynamics in terms of prioritization and ability to get access to that cabin. At that time, we actually made the decision that the Star Gold get a range of benefits – in EQMs and (other) privileges when they travel with United.

United Economy Plus is a peculiarly unique product to United, among which we felt was genuinely earned by United customers … earned or available to United customers. So, it was – as seen by a US Airways member – a takeaway. Obviously, they still have the ability to access it by paying $30 or $40 or whatever the fee is on the day (of travel), but it really was a prioritization issue. And I don't think that anything that's happened since has made us believe that that prioritization wasn't right. (But) I understand their frustration – having to now either pay for it or lose it as a right (of elite Star status).

Mutzabaugh:The next question involves the recent series of articles by The Washington Times…

Atkinson:It must be Star Alliance …

Mutzabaugh:Yes, it is. So, I'll read the question from the reader and we can take it from there. "How can United continue to justify filtering Star Alliance awards when other members of the alliance make them available for their members?"

Atkinson: Right. So, it's a great question … and I think it's not as simple to explain as I wish it were.

The foundational answer to the question is every time one of our customers redeems a flight on another carrier, we actually have to pay the other carrier. Now we have more members than any other Star carrier has in their program. And therefore, you can imagine and understand there is a balance of trade here that has to be managed. I don't know – as a fact – that other Star carriers don't manage availability. That's a statement that's being made in the press. I don't know that to be true.

There are many different ways to manage availability of redemption awards, but I can only speak for ourselves in saying that I have a fundamental interest in making as much availability for United members – wherever they want to go – as I possibly can. And that's something which is in my both my short-term and long-term interests in terms of keeping members in the program and having a healthy program.

The fact (is) that we – at the margins – would prefer people to fly United in redemption rather than Star carriers. And in some cases, (that we) don't necessarily make all the availability that a Star carrier may on particular day and a particular route I think is something I manage and I'm aware of. And (that) is not a static close-out.

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