If you don’t like some of the recent changes to your airline loyalty program, talk to Mike Croswell. He’s a United Airlines “Million Miler” who assumed that his three decades of devotion to the airline would be reciprocated after he stopped being a frequent flier.
He assumed wrong.
“The money I spent chasing Million Mile status is without a doubt the poorest investment of my career,” says Croswell, who lives in Aspen, Colo., and joined United’s frequent-flier program, MileagePlus, in 1983. “I have zero benefits that were promised to me.”
Million Milers are, as the name suggests, air travelers who have given their long-term loyalty to one airline. In exchange for flying a million miles, they’re typically offered lifetime “elite” status that includes access to upgrades, preferred treatment and other perks reserved for an airline’s top customers. But as airlines begin to aggressively restructure their frequent-flier programs, some veteran air travelers who have retired but were depending on the benefits they worked for while they were still frequent fliers have found that their airlines are no longer treating them like the valued customers they thought they were.
Croswell says that his benefits have evaporated since United’s merger with Continental. Gone are many of the upgrades and other perks, and his boarding pass doesn’t even note his “Million Miler” status anymore. “Imagine putting money in a savings account, and the day you go to redeem the promised return, they say, ‘Sorry, we changed the rules. Your money is worth nothing now,’ ” he says. “I feel betrayed.”
United Airlines did not respond directly to Croswell’s criticisms and would not provide a representative of its MileagePlus program for an interview. But Charles Hobart, a spokesman for the airline, said that United’s loyalty program is “very generous to customers who have been loyal to us in the past.”
He added, “Our program is very generous to customers who currently and consistently reward us with their business, and we think it makes sense to reward our most frequent fliers.”
In other words, if you continue showing your loyalty to United by flying on it, the airline will continue to reward you with benefits. Stop flying, and the rewards may not be as magnanimous.
One reason United isn’t talking is that it’s the subject of a lawsuit brought by another Million Miler. George Lagen, a Chicago-based frequent flier, sued United in May after the airline reduced his elite status. United has tried to get the case thrown out, claiming that it has the right to modify its frequent-flier program, but in late January, a federal judge refused to dismiss the case.
Lagen’s case is one of several lawsuits against United resulting from changes that occurred after it merged with Continental Airlines and began trimming the benefits of its combined frequent-flier program. But the Million Miler dustup is the most closely watched, not just among frequent travelers but also within the airline industry. Although incremental devaluations of frequent-flier programs aren’t unusual, this marks the first time that a major airline has made such dramatic downgrades for its most established customers. If United prevails in court, it will almost certainly embolden other airlines to take similar steps.