A few miles short of elite status on United Airlines — now what?

No one likes to start the New Year on the wrong foot, especially if it means you’ll be treated a little bit less special by your preferred airline. But that’s exactly what Matin Nazir is facing.

He didn’t qualify for Premier status with United Airlines for 2012, after five straight years of elite-ness.

Perhaps most frustrating, he’s only a few miles — and a few hours — from renewing his Mileage Plus status.

“I’ve fallen short by a mere 617 miles,” he told me.

He adds,

I have called United Airlines and begged them to extend the deadline to two more days. I have a return flight on Jan. 2 for 2,565 miles, which will put me over the threshold they require.

But they are not budging.

Instead, they are asking for 20,000 hard-earned miles so they can convert it to 2,000 Elite Qualifying Miles which will meet the gap. I find that excessive and somewhat unnecessary.

Is Mileage Plus status something worth fighting for? Sure.

Premier members can check two bags “for free,” pay reduced award ticket fees and enjoy early boarding privileges in exchange for their loyalty, plus many other benefits.

Despite my often harsh criticism of airline loyalty programs, I can understand why Nazir would want to keep his Premier status.

I suggested he send a brief, polite appeal to a United manager, asking the airline to take another look at his request. United can pull up Nazir’s award program information and determine exactly how valuable he is to United. Based on that, I thought he stood a pretty good chance of having an exception made.

Here’s the response:

As Customer Care Representatives, we are the ears of United’s senior leadership team when it comes to our guest’s post travel experiences. Based on your letters to both Customer Relations and Premier Mileage Plus, it is clear that you’ve noticed a decline in our overall service as an airline. While hearing these types of comments are regrettable, I know it is necessary to identify areas of improvement in our business.

I can understand your concern regarding your elite status request with United. We regret to hear that our Mileageplus agents are not being more supportive and attentive to your request. Unfortunately, Customer Care is dedicated to assist passenger with past date travel concerns and do not have access to modify or authorize your United MileagePlus account. We appreciate your efforts in seeking assistance thru our Customer Care department.

Moving forward, we will not be able to grant your request to extend your status into 2012 without meeting the published criteria. Please understand that doing so will make the Mileage Plus program lose its integrity of something that is truly earned. Because your concerns have been escalated to United’s highest level of Customer Care and Mileage Plus, we have reached an impasse and are firm with our decision to deny your request. I recognize that this is not the resolution you were expecting and I apologize that I could not honor your requests.

As you are a Premier member of our MileagePlus program, your business and goodwill are especially important to us. It is always a privilege to serve you.

Reading between the lines on this reply, it seems United Airlines did check Nazir’s file, and apparently found that he had complained about United’s service several times before. Curiously, although the form response says he contacted the wrong place, the second pasted paragraph suggests he did, in fact, reach the correct department — because it turned down his appeal.

My takeaway is that when United considers a special request to waive its rules, it takes a hard look at your history to see if you’re worth it. In Nazir’s case, the little zinger (“your business and goodwill are especially important to us”) says to me that its determination is “no” he is not.

United Airlines was basically telling him to get lost.

“I have essentially reached the end of the road,” Nazir says.

Maybe it’s time to switch airlines.

(Photo: Skinny Lawyer/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Bill Armstrong

    They did offer him a way to do it, which was to cash in the 20,000 miles.  He should do it if he wants the status.

  • Karen Bordner

    If he’s that concerned about Elite status he should be watching his miles accrue during the year. That way he would know or at least estimate where his mileage will end up. He can then plan a quick trip near the end of the year that exceeds the mileage he needs. In the fall a few years ago I figured out, based on upcoming business trips through the end of the year I would be 400-ish miles short of 50K. I too called UA to ask about routes that were 500 miles that I could go out and back from Denver on the same day and told them why telling them, “I know this sounds crazy but…”  

    When I suggested Aspen the customer service rep told me I didn’t want that as that is one of the most expensive routes in United’s system.  The customers service representative told me it wasn’t “crazy” and that they “hear this a lot.” She then looked into the system to not only find me flights but flights on sale. She noticed I flew to Chicago a lot and asked if this was business, or personal. When I said both she told me there was a Thursday-Saturday coming up in 6 weeks that would be $109 round trip. I booked this and while the departure times weren’t the greatest I ended up having a fun weekend with friends and achieving the mileage status I wanted at the end of the year. 

    I’ve flown UA since living in Chicago since the late 1990’s and I now live in the Denver area. After some horrific experiences in poor customer service from Northwest while living in Detroit and Chicago I can say I’ve always had very good customer service from UA. Maybe it’s how this man asked. In the years I’ve seen a lot of frequent flyers be extremely demanding to the point of being rude. That will get you nowhere. Anyone reading this knows this man should have known what his status was. All frequent flyer program has websites with updated mileage, UA should not be responsible for his lack of planning. Also, even at the 25K status he should join their Red Carpet Club. I hate to say this but any airline sees their “club members” as more valuable and the customer service reps inside the clubs (I’ve used Delta’s, & Continental’s through the AmEx Platinum card) do a good job solving problems, changing seating arrangements, and upgrades when possible. But then again, it’s also how you approach them and ask. 

    Let’s put ourselves in UA shoes, they have a website where he can look at his miles and he didn’t plan? Seriously? And for 25K? I can’t even believe I’ve spent so much time writing about this as it’s just pathetic. Sorry but this is a rookie mistake and UA doesn’t have to cover for him.

  • Aaron Gold

    When I was an American FF, they reportedly had a “fudge factor” — 500 or 1000 miles, I think. One year I was about 200 miles short of my 50k status. They asked me to make a request after the new year. I did and they granted it. Granted, that was 200 miles on 50k status, a much slimmer margin than 600 miles on a 25k status, so maybe that makes a difference. I recently switched to United, and I would hate to think they’d bump me down to 25k status if I had 49,800 miles. I’ll be honest, the more experience I have with United, the more I’m wondering if I made the right decision by switching from American…

  • BillShepp

    You can also buy EQM’s through a roundabout method.  if you book a flight on Continental you are offered the option to buy RDM (regular) miles, similar to on United.  If you do this, you are then offered the chance to buy an equal quantity of EQM miles.  You can then cancel the original flight and you’ll keep the RDM and EQM miles you purchased (that won’t be refunded).  In past years the cost of these extra miles has started out the year around $0.07/mile, and rises in November/December to as much as $0.40/mile.  It’s too late for him now, but had he noticed this in early November he probably could have bought the extra 600 EQM’s for around $50 (which would be a much better deal than redeeming 10K miles).  No one knows if post-merger United will offer the ability to purchase EQM’s this way…

  • MarkKelling

    You can get your miles back.  For a fee.

  • y_p_w

    It would make a difference.

    I noticed that 25K miles will later this year only qualify for “Premier Silver”, which only yields one free check-in bag up to 50 lbs.  At 50K miles it increases to “Premier Gold” with 3 free check-in bags of up to 70 lbs each.  That seems like a really good deal if one brings along tons of stuff as gifts, although who knows what happens once the TSA opens it up.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

    I must disagree 100 percent

    I think the airlines love their programs.  The proof being that they are generally trying to bolster the programs.  Airlines make tons of money by sellingmiles to credit cards and other places.

  • Carchar

    I voted no. If status is important, one has to be vigilant about one’s miles. I find it worth the annual fee to have the Presidential Plus credit card with Continental, which gives 1000 EQMs for every $5000 spent. I certainly needed it this year. Along with those, a Newark to Baltimore flight via Las Vegas, LA and Denver put me over the 75000 mark. If I hadn’t made it, there would have been no one to blame but me. I’m assuming UA will have a similar credit card once the merger is complete.

    Just one thing irks me about UA’s response as with most customer service negative responses. They say they “can’t” help you, when in reality, they won’t help you. 

  • jikinn

    I like the way Delta handles the mileage accounts for folks who have some miles but not enough to really use. They let you exchange the miles (which are about to expire anyway) for magazine and newspaper subscriptions. Twice, I got several months of the Wall Street Journal, which I cannot afford otherwise. I also received several magazine subscriptions that lasted several months. I was glad to get them, especially since I wasn’t going to be able to use the miles for travel.

  • y_p_w

    I had that option with MileagePlus.  I think I could also choose movie tickets.

    Still – my miles have probably already expired even though I still receive statements.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YPJVVGEGACHK2MWPQGRDRE2KU4 reynard

    I just got Elite status with UA, something I’d never thought I’d fly enough to get (must be those yearly trips to Mongolia ;0) ). I’m simply going to enjoy it while it lasts. I’ve survived quite a few years without it and it didn’t kill me. The big bennie will be the two free bags, plus the automatic upgrade to Economy Plus.

    The OP didn’t keep track of his miles and I fail to see how this is UA’s problem, especially since he had other options. It would be interesting to know what he complained about.

  • Ann Lamoy

    Delta’s miles expire yearly as far as qualifying for elite status but they don’t expire as far as building up to use for  applying towards a free ticket. Last year when I had to fly back East when my Dad was dying, I had 20,000 miles accumulated from about 3 years-I was able to take $200 off my ticket. And since it was a last minute ticket, it made that $500 ticket a little less painful.

    They allow you to use as little as 10,000 miles ($100 off) to apply to the ticket price on miles eligible flights. Then $150 off for 15,000 miles and so on. It is kind of nice that you don’t need to build up a huge amount to take some money off. And for me-someone that has to fly 6,000 miles round trip-to visit family, those miles can build up quickly.

  • sershev

    Stop crying about it. Rules are rules. You are responsible to track your miles and plan accordingly if you want Premier status. People do mile runs just to have the status or plan extra trip or look at different or extra connections that will put you to Elite status.

  • TouchyFeely

    What they “pulled up” was where he lived. He probably travels for biz a lot and lives in a United hub city. Thus , they do not care.

  • MarkKelling

    That’s a good deal.

    I used to think that Continental had the best one.  EFD to IAH = 40 miles actual air distance for which you got 500 EQM each way.  EFD is the airfield that NASA uses in south Houston and was also an Air National Guard base.  

    The runways between the two airports line up and depending on which way IAH was landing and taking off, the plane would lift off and land without ever even turning.  It was cool watching the F16s and strange NASA planes take off and land while waiting on your flight to board and then sitting next to astronauts on the short flight.  

    The best part of the deal was the free parking at EFD and the fact that CO didn’t charge extra for that segment if you booked it as part of a flight onward from IAH.  CO was the only commercial airline flying out of there and the deal was too good to last so they no longer operate from there.

  • MarkKelling

    Elite gives you automatic upgrades to 1st class too.  That is the upgrade to get excited about. Depending on where and when you fly, you might get to fly up front often for very low priced tickets.

  • MarkKelling

    More likely they looked at how much he spent with UA for the year.  If he is someone who always buys the lowest priced ticket they didn’t really make any profit off him and that’s is why they didn’t want to give him a bump up.  If he was someone who was in the top tier of spenders, belonged to the United Club, and sometimes flew a paid 1st ticket, they would have given him the needed miles no question.  But then if he was a big spender he probably would have made the top tier frequent flyer level already and we would not have been having this discussion.

  • y_p_w

    San Francisco to Oakland is somewhat of an extreme example.  At one time the entire flight was actually SFO-OAK-DEN from what I understand.  However, some people booked SFO-OAK just for the mileage runs.  When I was a kid in the 80s I remember ABC News doing a puff piece on it.  I seem to remember they showed a flight attendant assigned to that flight who was also a part time actress on a soap opera.

    Here are some discussions on the route:

    http://www.airliners.net/aviation-forums/general_aviation/read.main/731468/
    http://www.airliners.net/aviation-forums/general_aviation/read.main/4138043/
    http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/archive/t-630253.html
    http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/archive/t-953740.html
    http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/archive/index.php/t-207744.html

    However, they don’t line up.  I think it’s about 11-13 miles in a straight line, but SFO runways  10L/28L and 10R/28R are roughly parallel with OAK runway 11/29.  Some talk about the route was that the flight path took an S pattern because of the way the runways lined up.  They might have used 1L/19L or 1R/19R at SFO to avoid an extreme S.

    I mentioned this to a United flight attendant when I was on an international flight.  He didn’t believe that any airline would schedule a flight that short.  From what I’ve read, other airlines had that route on large equipment, including Alaska and Delta.  It was really just a “hop on board” flight even though some people did book it.  If traffic wasn’t bad, it would take less time to drive from San Francisco to Oakland, especially with SFO a good 10 miles from downtown San Francisco, and OAK maybe 6 miles from downtown Oakland. Check out the map:

    http://maps.google.com/maps?saddr=San+Francisco+International+Airport,+San+Francisco,+CA&daddr=Oakland+International+Airport,+Airport+Drive,+Oakland,+CA&hl=en&ll=37.643053,-122.244873&spn=0.302301,0.501938&sll=37.694688,-122.293625&sspn=0.302091,0.501938&geocode=Fdj9PQIdAZW0-CGPprokJLPSNw%3BFeZzPwIdbSu3-CFgdAEDDwxjsA&vpsrc=0&mra=ls&t=h&z=11

  • Kairho

    Nothing really to say.  Just wondering how narrow this column can get.

  • y_p_w

    Yeah.  Strange how most Disqus comment sections right justify with a hard stop.  I’ve seen some comments software that only allow replies to a parent message on the left to prevent this kind of thing from happening.

    It’s looking pretty strange as I’m composing this.  I’ve got a box that’s about two characters wide, but the text is spreading out way beyond the box.

  • Steve_in_WI

    I don’t see why United should make an exception for him. It would be nice if they did, and I don’t blame him for asking politely, but I think he was out of line to ask Chris to intervene.

    I mean, this wasn’t a case where the customer was confused by an unclear policy or misled by United; I assume he knew how many miles he’d need to keep his status and when he needed to earn them by since he stated that in his letter to them. I see no obligation on the part of United to bend the rules for him. (And if they bend the rules for a customer who’s 600 miles short, what about one who’s 1500 miles short? Or 3000 miles short? Where do you draw the line?)

    Again, I see nothing wrong with asking for an exception in a case like this, but IMHO it’s not something to appeal.

  • y_p_w

    Not meaning to sound like an ad, but apparently United is partnering with a credit card issuer for a credit card that gives the first checked bag for free, priority boarding, a couple of United Club passes per year, and right now it’s 25,000 bonus miles just for using it the first time.  They do charge for it but will waive the first year’s annual fee (normally $95).  This seems almost like the same benefits that they offer for the Premier Silver status that takes effect later this year.

    However, I’m wondering what the “elite” travelers think when it’s this easy for someone to get the same benefits by signing up for a credit card with a fee that’s less than the typical cost of a round-trip SFO-LAX ticket

  • http://browneknows.com/ Kathi Browne

    A similar thing happened with my husband’s miles on Delta. He considered taking a one-day trip across country just to get the remaining miles, but our schedules just didn’t allow it.

    I wish I had known an appeal is possible. Maybe they would have seen he responded to an onboard medical need (not once, but twice) as a physician. But even then, they only sent him a certificate for 1000 points. 

  • Phillip Dugaw

    You don’t get automatic upgrades with the card.  I’m Star Alliance Gold and could care less if United Cardmembers board with me or stand in the premier security line or hang out with me in the United Club, the only thing I really care about is my upgrade priority, which they are not eligible for unless they reach Premier status by actually flying. That’s the real benefit of elite status.

  • TMMao

    Just received my new UA Premier card and it’s valid through January 2012.  All that work and flying for one month of elite status?

  • prinsez

    If your are that close to making status, you know it! Its up to you to complete the needed EQMS. If they give this guy status then what about the next guy who comes begging and the one after him? Soon you have a bunch of elite fliers who truely didnt earn it!

  • psteinmetz

    If somebody is close, they need to keep track and book an extra flight to get the miles before the deadline.  Hasn’t he heard of a mileage run?
    I thought it was generous of United to offer to convert 20K miles into the required status miles.  He should take that offer and pay more attention next year.

  • Poley King

    If he posted it on flyertalk  he would get flamed. Everyone else + me went on a mileage run to pick up the extra miles necessary.

  • Poley King

    where should the limit be? 1 mile? 10? 20? 200? 300? 1000? Short is short

  • Poley King

    US airlines don’t match status to those who are losing their status. At this time of year they will request a card with a much further out expiration date then 1/31/12 or 2/29/2012

  • flutiefan

    they didn’t tell him to “get lost”. they told him he wasn’t special and he needed to follow the rules like everyone else. good for them!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UXMZPQ4FW5NIVC526OBXHVUJBA Decent American

    He is NOT a customer UAL or any airline really wants. He barely reaches the lowest rung of the Elite Ladder. They would rather cut him loose than work to keep him especially since CO and UA have combined their FF awards program. Now if he was a few miles short of reaching Premiere ELITE, then I’m sure they would have worked hard to keep him. 

  • Bunny Faber

    Totally, it’s about the upgrades. The only benefit to having the card (and Silver status) is checked bag fee waived and walking on the blue carpet.

  • http://www.facebook.com/SSRedG Red Guevarra

    Seriously, these United stories are making me vomit. I’m still a Delta Medallion, a KLM Silver and an Alaska MVP – because I stay away from United.