UPDATE: See below
The metaphor of air travel shrinking the globe has been around for a long time and it is, to me, one of the most appealing things about travel. I love that I can schlep to the airport, close myself up in a metal tube and not too many hours later emerge in a completely different environment. It is somewhat magical.
United Airlines seems to be taking the concept of shrinking the globe a step or two farther, however. The new MileagePlus program appears to have actually shrunk the earth, reducing the number of miles between airports throughout their system. In many cases the changes are just a mile or three, maybe up to 10. The overall impact, while de minimis on any individual route, is very real throughout the overall network.
Perhaps most interesting is the official statement from the company on the issue.
As part of combining our two loyalty programs, we did a side-by-side comparison of the mileage calculations used by Continental and United. Of course, we found differences. Most commonly, these differences in calculations were found in locations where airports have physically moved (e.g. DEN, HKG, SIN, etc.). Other differences were found in markets where, when Continental or United added service, the mileage amount chosen was simply set to match other carriers already servicing the market as opposed to doing a new calculation.
In an effort to begin using a single source for all mileage calculations, we refreshed all of our calculation data. The source against which this new mileage is calculates is a standard Great Circle Map (GCM) table. As many of you know, there are several sources for GCM data, and, while they don’t match perfectly, they are also rarely ever off by more than a mile.
I can appreciate the need to reconcile the data every now and then. That part actually makes sense. But if airports have moved then they necessarily moved only in one direction. It would be impossible, for example, for O’Hare to become closer to both LaGuardia and Portland, Oregon at the same time. Strangely, however, that is precisely what the new numbers from United show.
The good news is that the issue is now being addressed in more detail. After being confronted with the fact that the world isn’t really shrinking the company issued another update:
…I apologize for sharing details hastily in my initial post regarding how our mileage distances are being calculated. Turns out it’s a bit more complicated. Mileage amounts are used for a variety of purposes within the company, and we are assessing all the considerations involved. There are more details to come on this topic, and we will have an update for you next week.
So maybe the world really isn’t shrinking and we’re just waiting to find that out officially.
UPDATE (12 March 12): Turns out that the company has basically backed down completely on this move. They’re putting everything back the way it was. Flights previously credited will be updated and new ones will credit correctly going forward.