|by Sean O'Neill||Airlines, Airport Check-in, Frequent Flier Miles, Loyalty Programs||10|
United Airlines announced today how it will blend its frequent flier program with merger partner Continental's. United will start the combined MileagePlus program early next year. But its changes to the program are bad news for some budget-conscious fliers used to Continental's more generous terms.
The biggest change will affect members of Continental's OnePass program: Miles in the combined program will expire after a year and a half. (Continental never deleted miles after a certain date.)
To avoid letting reward miles vanish, travelers will have to keep them alive by either flying more often or by having "account activity," such as by logging in to mileageplusshopping.com with your frequent-flier number and making a purchase through a linked retailer, signing up for an airline-affiliated United credit card, or trading in United frequent flier miles for hotel stays, car rentals, or, um, magazines (hint, hint).
United has also hiked its fee for using miles to upgrade to a better seat.
The first tier of status that budget travelers can aspire to will be Premier Silver, which can be reached after flying at least 25,000 miles over at least four flights on Continental, United or Panama's Copa Airlines. This status brings members some perks: one free checked bag. They can also gain free access to a program where they can apply to pass background checks and have accelerated passage through U.S. customs—not security—lines.
Bad news: If you only fly about 25,000 miles a year and only have Premier status, you only get first dibs on upgrades to an Economy Plus seat 24 hours in advance of departure. In the past on United or Continental, you could have access to larger seats at booking and your chances of getting an automatic upgrade were good. Now, economy-class fliers who are choosing between flying on United or another airline don't have the high likelihood of getting an automatic seat upgrade to lure them to pick United.
On the down side, there will be fewer flights on which to cash in miles for free tickets. United announced it expected to stop flying as much, with about two out of every 100 flights scheduled today in the U.S. on the combined airlines being removed by next year, reports the Chicago Tribune.
United will also reward travelers who purchase full-fare coach tickets with a 25 percent mile bonus. This is a change from the old system of one-mile equaling one reward point.
The combined program has 85 million members, reports the Associated Press.
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