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United-Continental’s New Elite Status Announced

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The post-merger United-née-Continental elite status benefits were announced today, and will take effect in the first quarter of 2011. As the Wall Street Journal noted, lowest-tier elite members will see some benefits reduced, but for the most part, United’s new elite program is actually not that bad. For everyone but those at the bottom of the totem pole, they’ll see some benefits actually improve.

The clearest manifestation of United’s new rich-get-richer mentality is the added mileage bonus for full-fare economy (+25%), business (+50%-75%) and first class (+75%-150%) tickets, which will accelerate elite status for business travelers but delay it for those who buy off discount sites like Kayak.

Sucks to be silver…

Silver-level elite members, who’ve flown 25k Premier Qualifying Miles or 30 Premier Qualifying Segments, definitely get the short end of the stick. They only get one free checked bag (they used to get two) and they are eligible for economy upgrades at the time of check-in, rather than booking. Even these poor souls will see a new benefit: complimentary companion upgrades. Plus, they don’t pay same-day change fees, which Delta’s Silver members do.

…but not so bad for everyone else

If you’ve reached the other elite tiers (Gold, Platinum and 1K), you’ll see some pretty great perks. Gold and Platinum levels will take a hit in their mileage boosts (down to 50% and 75% from 100%), but they’ll get some benefits in exchange. The post-merger airline adopted Continental’s elite waived bag fee policy, giving 1 free bag to Silver members and 3 to everyone else rather than 2 across the board. The higher-level ones will keep economy upgrades at booking time, membership into the Gold Star Alliance level, and waived change fees.

Premier and 1K members get pampered: they get a credit to the Global Entry program, which lets you skip customs lines when you return to the US. They’ll also get regional upgrades, while 1K members get global upgrades. Finally, 1K members get a $60 statement credit if they have the United MileagePlus Explorer card.

How does the new program stack up?

United vs. Delta: To United’s credit, it gives a better mileage bump on first and full-fare business tickets, 75%-150% rather than 50%. But, on the other hand, Delta lets everyone check 3 bags free, and gives a much better overall mileage bump for Gold and up.

United vs. American: United’s Gold-level members (equivalent to AA Platinum) get a lower mileage bump: 50% to AA’s 100%. AA Gold (equivalent to United Silver) members get 2 checked bags free, but don’t get priority baggage handling. In United’s favor, you receive much better mileage bumps on high-fare tickets. Also, American’s not so much with the waived change fees.

Verdict: The new program is far from terrible, especially if you’re one of the fortunate few. You’ll find better benefits and more miles on pricey seats, accelerating your rise to the top. It makes sense: post-merger, the airline will have a whopping 85 million elite members, and it’ll have to differentiate somehow to keep from diluting the brand. So, yes, Silver gets shafted. But in exchange, everyone else sees their perks go up.