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United Airlines makes life easier for its frequent fliers

Matthew McNulty

United Airlines are removing the expiration dates for frequent flyer miles starting on Wednesday, doing away with MileagePlus members’ previous 18-month limit that made it difficult to accrue enough points to take advantage of more desirable and exotic flight options.

With the decision to remove expiration dates from MileagePlus accounts, points earned today could hypothetically be redeemed decades from now, making it easier to accumulate enough frequent flyer miles to actually use them.

The move puts United among the likes of Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways, which removed their loyalty program’s expiration dates in 2011 and June, 2013, respectively.

Meanwhile, the only major airlines that still have expiration dates for their loyalty programs are Southwest Airlines, whose Rapid Rewards points expire after 24 months without use, and American Airlines, whose loyalty program resets to zero if the account holder doesn’t use their account within an 18-month period or purchase miles. Alaska Airlines' miles also expire following 24 months of account inactivity.

Prior to Wednesday, a frequent flyer with United Airlines had to make at least one qualifying activity within 18 months, when the expiration counter would reset. Such qualifying activities ranged from booking and taking a flight to using a United Airlines co-branded credit card or using miles for award flights and purchases.

United is also finding new ways for travelers to use their frequent flyer miles, with MileagePlus accountholders now able to use their miles to purchase TSA Precheck memberships, upgrades to premium economy class seats, gift cards, and even Apple products.

Of course, there is an incentive for airlines to do away with such expiration dates. Unused frequent flyer miles and points are deemed a liability in the airline’s accounting ledgers, with that liability reduced as the accountholder’s loyalty program balance decreases.

The move also looks to put United back in consumers good graces after the airline received quite a bit of backlash in April upon eliminating fixed-price award charts, instead opting for a more on demand-based pricing system that makes high-travel dates more expensive and lower-trafficked travel times less so, with the new pricing method going into effect on November 15.

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