Is United’s new frequent flier program created for wealthy rocket scientists?

Frequent flier programs have always been complicated and at times seemingly irrational, even for frequent fliers and travel agents.

But United’s new MileagePlus program takes it to a whole new level, since travelers who care about both Elite Status and award tickets now have to consider three different numbers for each trip.

No joke. And two out of three of those numbers are not obvious.
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Do seductive frequent flier programs hurt competition?

If you’ve ever done something for the miles, like Rick Brown has, you probably know the dilemma.

Should you shrug off a higher fare, a less convenient routing or consistently bad service for the promise of a “free” flight?

Brown, who runs a trading company in New York, has done all that — sticking with his preferred carrier, United Airlines, even when the airline struggled. He’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on airfares for himself and his family during his career, “more than on any other airline,” he says.

Research suggests many consumers are similarly seduced, and that the siren song of loyalty programs can lure them into booking a substandard product. The debate is particularly intense now, with United’s’ controversial loyalty program changes taking effect this month. It becomes the latest airline to reward customers based on money spent instead of miles flown.
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100,000 miles, $194 and a one-week delay — and you offer this?

To fly from San Francisco to Paris last month, Kenneth Cook forked over 100,00 miles and paid a $194 fee 10 months before his scheduled flight. The routing wasn’t ideal — it sent him via Denver and Frankfurt, but for that, he was getting choice seats in the front of the plane.

The least he expected was the see his luggage at the end of the journey, and that if he didn’t, the airline would take care of everything.

It didn’t.
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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.
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Airline freezes passenger’s mileage account after “disturbing” number of complaints

For those of you who think a well-worded complaint is the fastest way to a free ticket, I have some bad news: The airlines are on to you.

Consider what happened to George Yen. He found himself locked out of his Mileage Plus account after United Airlines took issue with his frequent complaints.

Yen says the grievances — and the miles he was awarded as a result — are justified. When he flies on United, he says, “I usually experience lots of problems — delays, baggage issues, cancellations.”

But the way United handled his loyalty account was anything but justified, he says.

United placed my mileage plus on an audit, and since October I have been unable to utilize any of my miles. I have more than 100,000 miles due to credit card offers (since I have a United Airlines credit card) and I fly with United often.

They have held my account on this status for months now and I have been calling customer relations, Mileage Plus customer service again and again. They recommended that I deal with Mileage Plus Audit or the Mileage Plus Fraud Line.

What doesn’t seem fair is that I can continue to accumulate miles but not use them.

These miles should not be frozen. I emailed and called customer relations more than a dozen times, and most of the agents are not even located within the U.S. or give me much more information in regards to this matter.

I asked United about Yen’s case. It is unclear why the audit took so long, but a representative told me that Yen’s entire account wasn’t frozen — only the miles that were being audited. What’s behind the audit? The letter he received explains almost everything.

Since your Mileage Plus enrollment last year, you have engaged in a number of communications with various United departments. Our employees have attempted to satisfactorily resolve your various issues. Unfortunately, it appears that you have engaged in conduct that causes us great concern.

During this last year, you have contacted us well over 200 times concerning alleged disservice issues. As discussed in my phone conversation with you yesterday, the frequency of your contacts with us is very disturbing in light of the fact that you have only flown with us for the last 6 months.

Accordingly, we have completed a historical review of these contacts and have concluded that a majority appear to be directed toward securing goodwill compensation in the form of entitlements, i.e. certificates and miles for future travel and upgrades. Our review found that although you flew only 24,891 actual miles in 2008, you contacted us to obtain mileage compensation of 68,500 miles, numerous upgrades, and $5,125 in dollar off certificates.

Our review also found that you were provided with significant compensation due to your initiation of contact with us numerous times over the same issues. Quite frankly, much of this compensation was offered without our knowledge that you had already been appropriately compensated. These entitlements went well beyond the point of providing you with reasonable compensation for your alleged disservice issues with our company.

I have therefore adjusted your Mileage Plus account by the 68,500 miles credited originally and by 40,000 miles for the duplicate dollar off certs you have obtained and used for your tickets. Your account is now out of audit status and available for web use.

Mr. Yen, we have endeavored to address all your concerns in good faith. However, given the amount of compensation requested by you as well as our concerns about the validity of many of these, I must respectfully advise you that any future abuse will result in the closure of your Mileage Plus account and cancellation of any accruals. While it is regrettable that we have to take this position, it is necessary to preserve the integrity of the Mileage Plus program for the vast majority of the members who participate in accordance with the program rules.

OK, then.

So both sides agree that Yen did a fair amount of complaining, and received miles and upgrades from the airline as a result of questionable service.

Yen says the airline froze his entire account and took months to respond to his query (actually, that it didn’t have a meaningful response until he contacted me). United says it didn’t freeze his whole account but confiscated a vast majority of the miles it gave him because they went “well beyond the point of providing [him] with reasonable compensation.”

Who to believe?

Is Yen a serial complainer? I don’t know. He seemed pretty reasonable in our email exchanges. But 200 complaints in six months seems like a little much. Was United justified in removing nearly all the miles? I don’t know. Something tells me that a few of those complaints were probably legit.

Bottom line: Don’t overdo the complaining. United’s audit was triggered when it found more goodwill miles than miles actually flown. If your frequent flier account is leaning in that direction, watch out.