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United Changes Points Structure for Frequent Flyers

“The miles are the goal…Let’s just say that I have a number in mind, and I haven’t hit it yet.”

For Ryan Bingham, as portrayed by actor George Clooney in the 2009 film ‘Up in the Air,’ that number was 10 million frequent flyer miles, an elusive achievement reached by only seven American Airlines customers. By comparison, he notes throughout the film that “more people have walked on the moon.”

Whatever that magic number is for frequent flyer members on United Airlines, it’s about to change—dramatically.

Following in the footsteps of a decision already made by Delta Air Lines, United is moving away from fixed miles and mileage charts for frequent flyers. Instead, it is going to a form of ‘dynamic pricing’ based on such factors as supply and demand and time of year. The change will be implemented starting Nov. 15 of this year.

In a nutshell, here’s how the new system is going to work.

Previously, or since the inception of the whole idea of airline loyalty programs, a customer would accumulate points or miles on every trip depending on the length of the trip. The frequent flyer would then be able to accumulate those miles and trade them in for a free flight to a chosen destination.

All the traveler would have to do is look at the mileage chart provided by the airline, find the city of choice and see the corresponding number of miles needed for a free ticket.

Then, several years ago, things changed. Oh, you can still redeem your points for a free trip, but the way customers accumulate points is now different. No longer does the guy who bought a coach ticket for $369 earn the same number of miles as the person who spent $969 to fly first class.

Now, come Nov. 15 on United—and presumably on other airlines now that a second domino has fallen—the redemption process changes dramatically. Going forward, frequent flyers won’t know how many miles they need to go to say Rome for example until it is time to actually purchase the ticket. There will be no award chart.

Instead, it could be 500,000 miles if flights are jam-packed during times such as the height of the tourist season or during holiday travel. On the other hand, it could be 50,000 miles at a low season time for travel to Europe, such as in February or March.

That’s not ideal, of course, on many fronts. It shortens the window for knowing how many points you need, and since the new system is fluid, the number of points needed could change at any time—although United is stressing that the mileage needed could also trend down depending on supply and demand.

Still, the change is coming.