Frequent flyers vent frustration over United Airlines reward reforms

Changes to United Airlines frequent-flyer loyalty program have left many Israelis threatening to take their custom elsewhere.

A United Airlines passenger jet taxis at Newark Liberty International Airport, New Jersey, U.S. December 6, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/CHRIS HELGREN)
A United Airlines passenger jet taxis at Newark Liberty International Airport, New Jersey, U.S. December 6, 2019.
Frequent flyers between Israel and the US have called on United Airlines to reconsider an overhaul of its loyalty program and are threatening to take their transatlantic business elsewhere.
Under reforms to the United Airlines MileagePlus loyalty program, effective since January 1, qualifying for “Premier” status is now based only on the value of tickets purchased and number of flights taken. Prior to the change, qualification was based on traveling a sufficient quantity of qualifying miles – incentivizing long-distance travel – or a combination of qualifying segments and dollars.
For those aspiring to qualify for the top-tier premier status, “Premier 1K,” passengers will need to fly 54 premier qualifying flights and spend $18,000 on tickets (excluding taxes and fees), or spend $24,000 on flights alone during the current calendar year.
The changes have left American-Israelis who regularly shuttle between work in Israel and the US disappointed, arguing that the reforms favor expensive short-haul flyers at the expense of those who travel overseas.
For Premier 1K member Jonathan Feldstein, who flew approximately 133,000 miles with United Airlines during 2019, working for a nonprofit organization means cost is always a consideration when purchasing tickets.
In a letter sent to outgoing United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, Feldstein said he had been left “frustrated and disappointed” by the decision to restructure the program.
“You have completely discounted people like me who do lots of miles between continents in favor of people who spend lots of money and fly lots of segments,” he wrote. “Anyone like me who flies internationally on any regular basis, to/from Asia, S. America, Europe and the Middle East is basically being told ‘We don’t care about you.’”
Describing his relationship as a “two-way street” until now, Feldstein said he now feels “forced to turn elsewhere,” citing the expansion of El Al’s network of destinations in the US.
United Airlines, the third-largest carrier in the world, has flown between Tel Aviv and New York since 1999 and launched three weekly flights to Washington Dulles International Airport last May.
When Dr. Jonathan Wiesen made aliyah five years ago, with a commitment to continue his medical practice in Cleveland, Ohio, he opted to fly exclusively with United Airlines, judging its reward program to be marginally more generous than programs offered by competitor Delta Air Lines. Wiesen, a Premier 1K member for the past three years, traveled more than 150,000 miles in 2019, mostly accrued over Europe and the Atlantic Ocean.
“I receive outstanding benefits as a 1K member and am therefore willing to pay more, sometimes much more (even double at times), for my international United flights because the long-term benefits of the 1K program have made it worthwhile,” he wrote in a letter to Munoz, who will be succeeded by incoming chief executive Scott Kirby in May.
“Since changing from Delta to United, Delta has expanded flights all over the world with a much-improved benefits package. If I am not going to get credit for flying internationally on United because miles no longer matter, then there’s no reason to overpay to fly United. That’s sad,” Wiesen wrote.
Rinat Hirschkornroth, an Israeli dentist who regularly flies to New Jersey to provide dental services at nursing homes, expressed similar frustration after flying frequently with United Airlines to New York for 14 years.
“Unfortunately, my company doesn’t pay my way, and I have to purchase my own tickets,” she told The Jerusalem Post. “I am very saddened by their new policies and afraid that despite frequent flying, I won’t be able to reach any status, as I cannot afford expensive tickets, and unfortunately, that’s what they count the most.”
Responding to passenger complaints, United Airlines told the Post: “We consistently evaluate MileagePlus to ensure we offer a competitive program. When making any policy changes, we always seek to strike the right balance for our customers. We are adding more products that help members reach status, including: paid upgrades, Mileage Plus Upgrade Award co-pay fees and Mileage Plus partner airline flights not ticketed by United. Separately, the customers concerned can write to Customer Relations, if they have not already done so, where their individual cases can be investigated and replied to.”