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Big changes on the way for United’s frequent flyers

Could a new era of award availability be on the way? United says it’s making more award seats available on every flight, but new fees are on the way, too. Here’s a rundown of the changes.

Through the end of its current ticketing window (March 15, 2007), United says it is reserving an unspecified “percentage” of Saver Award seats (the awards that require the fewest miles to redeem) on every domestic and international flight. (It’s unclear what that percentage is, however. If you’d like to take advantage of this potential surplus of award seats, book soon—today, if possible.)

Also effective immediately and throughout the rest of 2006, United will offer its Short Haul Saver Awards (on shorter flights) for “up to 40 percent fewer miles” than a regular award seat.

Those are the two positive changes. In addition, the airline says it will up the number of miles needed to redeem many of the Standard and certain Saver awards. As of October 16, a domestic Economy Standard Award will cost 50,000 miles. (Until now, it’s been at 40,000 miles.) The airline will also start charging fees for award flights booked fewer than 14 days in advance. Both moves put United’s program more in line with the policies of its biggest competitors.

I’ll speculate that the 14-day advance purchase fee won’t affect most travelers. It’s hard enough to reserve an award seat two months ahead of time, let alone two weeks in advance. That leaves two big questions:

1) What percentage of seats on every flight will really be available at the low Saver Award level?
2) Is that a fair trade in exchange for the extra miles you’ll now need to cash in for an Economy Standard Award?

The jury’s still out on the former, and I can tell you right now it’s not a good thing on the latter. All in all, this looks like a wash at best, and a bad turn of events at worst.

What do you think? Send me an email with your take.

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