At least until December 31, 2012, members of United's MileagePlus program could count on earning an elite-qualifying mileage bonus of 25 to 50 percent when flying business or first class on all 27 of United's Star Alliance airline partners.
Now, although MileagePlus members will continue to earn bonus redeemable miles for premium-class flights, when flying on 18 partner airlines they will earn the same number of elite-qualifying miles in first class as they would earn in discounted coach.
Make sense? Of course not. It's the sort of move that leaves travelers (and travel writers) shaking their heads, wondering, What were these bozos thinking?
And the follow-on question: Why didn't they give MileagePlus members any advance notice of what was sure to be a highly unpopular move?
The answer to the first question likely turns on a grab for competitive advantage. If a MileagePlus member can earn 50 percent more elite miles when flying first class on United than on, say, Singapore Airlines, there's a clear and compelling incentive to choose United.
There's no arguing with that logic. But United's new policy flies in the face of one of the underlying premises of global airline alliances, namely that such perks as elite bonuses will be more or less equalized among the partners, in the spirit of more cooperation, less competition.
All for one and one for all? Not for United. And that's a downgrade for the Star Alliance.
Needless to say, the change is a downgrade for MileagePlus members as well.
Reader Reality Check
What's your take on the change?
This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.