Starting March 1, 2015, you will earn award miles on United tickets according to the cost of the ticket instead of the distance flown.

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Delta announced a nearly identical move a few months ago, and at the time my headline included “The Sky is Not Falling.”

The sky is still not falling. For everyone except United elites, these changes will have very little impact. The far worse news from United for most of us is still the devaluation of its award chart that went into effect in February.

The outsized value I get from miles comes from redeeming them to visit interesting countries in business or first class with stopovers, open jaws, and free one ways built into my awards. That outsized value remains unaffected by today’s changes.

The outsized value that comes from earning miles on cheap, long United tickets disappears starting March 1, 2015.

  • What will the new earning structure be?
  • How can you still earn United miles based on distance flown?
  • How are miles earned from credit cards affected?
  • How are award redemptions affected?

Change to Award Mileage Earning

United announced changes to award mileage earning today that take effect on March 1, 2015:

  • For flights March 1, 2015 and later
  • booked with United (ticket number beginning “016”)
  • members will earn 5-11x of the dollar price of the base fare plus fuel surcharges
  • based on status:

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Currently you earn 1 mile per mile flown with bonuses for status and cabin flown.

The new earning structure will be worse for folks who fly far, cheap tickets and better for people who fly short, expensive tickets. Overall, it will be worse for more people and will disproportionately affect people in the frequent flyer community, many of whom are mileage runners.

This part of the announcement is bad news, though remember that just because you fly a United flight doesn’t mean you have to credit the award miles to United. You can enter your frequent flyer number with a United partner instead, and you should consider crediting future United tickets to ANA, Aeroplan, or Singapore if United status doesn’t matter to you.

No Changes to Partner Tickets Credited to United

Tickets for flights operated by a Star Alliance or MileagePlus partner airline that aren’t issued by United (ticket numbers that don’t start with “016”) will still earn award miles based on distance flown and the purchased fare class.

That is, if you buy a Singapore flight from Singapore Airlines, you can still input your United MileagePlus number and earn United miles based on distance flown.

No Changes to Credit Card Earnings

Your United credit card will still earn miles in exactly the same way.

No Changes to Earning Status

Last June, United announced changes to how status would be earned this year. The big change was the addition of a minimum spending requirement on United tickets or credit cards. How to earn status with United did not change today.

What Can You Do?

If you are not planning on flying many paid United flights, these changes are barely going to affect you. You can still earn heaps of United miles from credit cards and redeem on the United award chart at reasonable levels for economy, business, and United Global First awards (but not partner First Class awards, which are obscenely expensive.)

If you are a United elite, you have to decide whether staying with United makes sense or whether a switch to American or no airline loyalty makes more sense. Since Delta has already announced basically the same changes that United announced today, switching there makes no sense.

Switching to American is risky because what will stop them from making identical changes to their two main competitors, Delta and United?

I do like Gary Leff’s suggestion to try to let American know you are switching because their loyalty program is not revenue-based if you can, but I’m not really sure how you could let American know that.

Bottom Line

United went to a revenue-based earning program, which is not a big deal to most of us. If they had gone to revenue-based redemption, that would be far worse.

Today’s news is bad for most United elites, but pretty much a non-issue for most of us. Time will tell whether moving to revenue-based award mile earning is better or worse for Delta and United and whether American apes them or stays the course with distance-based earning.

I’ll watch with interest because the airline industry fascinates me, and I want readers to have the latest news but not because this is a huge, scary story for most of us. This is a small story for most of us.

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