Let's begin with the notice of upcoming award changes in United's own words:
On April 27, 2010, we'll be making minor changes to the chart to accommodate new regions of service and bring some of our mileage requirements in line with our competition. If you book your award ticket on or after April 27, 2010, the information on the new chart will apply.
While the pronouncement appears benign, there's a long history of airlines' "minor changes" turning out to be anything but. Here, however, the minor changes are rightly so-called.
When comparing the current and new award charts, the most obvious change is the addition of two new award-travel regions. Where the current scheme has 14 regions, the new one will have 16: South America will be divided into Northern and Southern sub-regions; and Africa will be split into Northern Africa and Central and Southern Africa.
More important are the pricing adjustments, which turn out to be few, relatively minor, and in some cases, changes for the better. Here's a summary:
- The new Northern South America levels (35,000, 70,000, and 90,000 miles for coach, business, and first class) are lower than the current South America levels (55,000, 100,000, and 135,000 miles, respectively).
- Award travel to Southern South America will be at the current South America levels, so there's no change there.
- Similarly, the new Northern Africa award prices are lower than the current Africa prices—75,000, 115,000, and 145,000 miles for coach, business, and first class, versus 80,000, 120,000, and 160,000 currently.
- Central and Southern Africa prices rise slightly for coach and business, to 90,000 and 125,000 miles, but remain the same for first class at 160,000 miles.
- Round-trip, business-class flights between North America and Japan will increase by 5,000 miles from 120,000 to 125,000 miles.
- Round-trip, business-class flights between Hawaii and North Asia will increase from 70,000 to 80,000 miles.
- And a round-trip coach flight between the Caribbean and Central America will rise from 30,000 to 35,000 miles.
What's behind the changes?
A quick comparison with Continental's award chart suggests that United is looking to minimize disconnects with that carrier's award pricing, now that Continental and United are partners in the Star Alliance and rumored to be eventual merger partners. (Continental's award chart already splits Africa and South America into sub-regions.) Another likely factor in the realignment: the impending addition of Brazil's TAM Airlines to the Star group of airlines.
On balance, the changes are hardly onerous, and United has given Mileage Plus members fair warning of their upcoming implementation. Good. But the airline might have improved the customer experience by detailing the changes route by route, as I have done above.
That way, program members would know which routes will be affected, and which flights to book at the current price to save miles over the new prices.
And they'd be assured that, in this case at least, "minor changes" are just that.