United Airlines tweaks frequent flyer program to reward credit card spending

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United Airlines planes at Denver International Airport.
Leslie Josephs/CNBC

United Airlines plans to make it easier for customers to earn elite status through co-branded Chase credit cards, the latest airline to tweak its lucrative frequent flyer program to reward big spenders.

The airline isn’t changing overall requirements for elite frequent flyer status next year, a first for the carrier since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, United said Thursday that in 2024, it will reward customers with 25 qualifying points for every $500 they spend on co-branded cards. Currently, customers get 500 points for every $12,000 spent. The carrier will also lift caps on credit card spending that can qualify toward elite status.

Travelers need 5,000 qualifying points plus four flights to get to silver status, the lowest level, or have a combination of flights and points.

Airlines reward their elites with perks such as free upgrades, when available; earlier boarding; and other perks.

But ranks of elite frequent flyers have surged in recent years as travelers continued to spend during the Covid-19 pandemic and airlines allowed them to hold on to their tier status even if they weren’t flying.

That has challenged airlines to keep their programs both exclusive and reasonably attainable and angered elites who are jostling alongside fellow travelers for upgrades or airport lounge access.

Delta Air Lines in September said elite status would be awarded solely on spend — instead of a combination of flights and spending — though last month it walked back some planned changes to its SkyMiles program and lounge access limits after customer complaints.

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