United changing how travelers earn mileage rewards

Published on NewsOK Modified: June 10, 2014 at 12:50 pm •  Published: June 10, 2014

DALLAS (AP) — United Airlines is about to reward its big-spending customers at the expense of bargain-hunting travelers who rack up miles with long-distance getaways.

United will follow other U.S. airlines that have begun basing awards on money spent, not miles flown. The changes would mostly benefit people who fly at least 25,000 miles a year on United.

Starting next March, elite members of United's MileagePlus will earn between 7 and 11 miles for every dollar they spend on tickets, not counting taxes. Regular members — those who fly less than 25,000 miles and spend less than $2,500 a year — will get 5 miles per dollar toward free travel.

Since 1981, when American Airlines rolled out the industry's first big loyalty program, travelers were rewarded for the number of miles they flew regardless of how much they paid for tickets.

In the last few years, however, Virgin America, JetBlue and Southwest Airlines retooled their programs to favor passengers who spend the most. In February, Delta Air Lines announced that it would do the same starting in 2015.

American Airlines and US Airways have yet to follow suit and say they remain focused on completing a merger between the two carriers.

The shift is part of a larger strategy by airlines to lure big spenders, especially business travelers who buy expensive, fully refundable tickets, sometimes in the first- or business-class cabin.

"These changes are designed to more directly recognize the value of our members when they fly United," said Thomas O'Toole, president of the airline's MileagePlus program.

Leisure travelers who fly United once or twice a year may not be greatly affected, said Brian Karimzad, director of the MileCards.com website. Many of those customers earn most of their miles on the ground — chiefly by using the airline's credit card, he said.

Even among United's corporate travelers, the changes will benefit some more than others.

"The big losers are people who work for companies that require them to always take the lowest coach fare, even across the Atlantic Ocean," Karimzad said. "That's a lot of companies."

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