Would you bid 420,000 miles to see a parked plane? These frequen - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Would you bid 420,000 miles to see a parked plane? These frequent-fliers did

Posted: Updated: Jun 20, 2018 5:45 AM
United's last-ever Boeing 747 to be used for revenue passenger service is seen at the Universal Asset Management (UAM) Aircraft Disassembly Center in Tupelo, Miss., on June 2, 2018. United's last-ever Boeing 747 to be used for revenue passenger service is seen at the Universal Asset Management (UAM) Aircraft Disassembly Center in Tupelo, Miss., on June 2, 2018.
Jim Garcia, United Airlines' Senior Manager of Fleet Surplus Sales, takes question from frequent-fliers in front of the carrier's last Boeing at the UAM Aircraft Disassembly Center in Tupelo, Miss., on June 2, 2018. Jim Garcia, United Airlines' Senior Manager of Fleet Surplus Sales, takes question from frequent-fliers in front of the carrier's last Boeing at the UAM Aircraft Disassembly Center in Tupelo, Miss., on June 2, 2018.
United frequent-flier Adam Johnson of Minneapolis takes pictures of the flight deck of the last Boeing 747 to fly paying passengers for United. Frequent fliers bid up to 420,000 miles for the experience of traveling to Mississippi to see the plane at an ' United frequent-flier Adam Johnson of Minneapolis takes pictures of the flight deck of the last Boeing 747 to fly paying passengers for United. Frequent fliers bid up to 420,000 miles for the experience of traveling to Mississippi to see the plane at an '
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TUPELO, Miss. - Dan Hopper couldn't have been happier as he strolled through the first-class cabin of a United Airlines Boeing 747 this month. What a great use of frequent-flier miles, he thought.

Hopper bid 420,000 miles for a spot on the plane, but it never left the ground.

That was by design. The trip that Hopper doled out all those miles for wasn't for a swanky overseas flight. Instead, it was for an auction package that took him and his partner from Chicago to Mississippi for one final chance to see United's last 747 before it's sold for parts.

The number of miles Hopper used for the trip would have been enough for as many as 16 domestic coach-class round trips. Or for three business-class tickets to Europe.

Instead, Hopper's chunk of miles went toward United's "Dinner with the Queen of the Skies' frequent-flier package. That included coach-class travel to Memphis, two nights at a local hotel and bus transportation to and from an "aircraft disassembly center' in northeast Mississippi, where Universal Asset Management CEO Keri Wright gave them a personal tour of the company's facilities. The visit concluded with an al fresco dinner on the tarmac with three retired 747s providing the backdrop.

Hopper had no second thoughts about how he used the miles.

"I've been infatuated with the 747 ever since I was a little kid,' Hopper said, chatting from the first-class cabin of the now-retired jumbo jet that flew United's last Boeing 747 passenger flight from San Francisco to Honolulu in November.

TODAY IN THE SKY: United's Boeing 747 farewell flight was one to remember (story continues below)

For Hopper, it was the special access to something that normally would be off-limits.

"I think it's great, because this is something incredibly unique,' he said. "Flying to Rome, it can be done. This, not so much. I think it's worth it.'

Hopper wasn't alone in that thinking.

Eight other MileagePlus members joined Hopper, coming after United put five of the two-person packages out to bid as part of its "MileagePlus Exclusives' program that lets frequent fliers use miles for "experiential' packages. Cumulatively, the five two-person bids netted a total 1.3 million miles, with one woman flying more than 10 hours from Hawaii to attend the one-day event.

Other MileagePlus Exclusives packages up for bid include items such as dinners with award-winning chefs, backstage passes to blockbuster concerts or VIP access to sporting events.

Such packages are not new to the travel industry's loyalty programs, but their scope is expanding.

"The oldest frequent-flier programs are now approaching 38 years old,' says Henry Harteveldt, a San Francisco-based travel analyst of the Atmosphere Research Group. "Just as a person evolves over 38 years, so do these marketing programs.'

United's Queen of the Skies package underscores a new direction loyalty programs are taking with their experiential packages: access to behind-the-scenes events that are tied to the company itself.

"I think the Tupelo event is a tremendous example of that,' says Luc Bondar, United's vice president of Loyalty and and president of MileagePlus, "where we're able to look across our business, find experiences and events that are unique to United that no one else can offer. Things that are only available to MileagePlus members.'

PHOTOS: United frequent-fliers go behind the scenes at a major warehouse for salvaged aircraft parts (story continues below)

More broadly, Bondar acknowledged the "growing and evolving trend' that has seen travel loyalty programs increasingly market not only free travel, but experiences.

"The shift has been a continual one toward recognizing that the experiences customers have … need to evolve with changing customer interests and changing customer demands,' he adds.

Bondar says more of today's frequent travelers - especially millennials - are "thinking about what they can do with miles as unlocking unique opportunity' rather than as a simple points-for-travel transaction.

"So we're putting a lot more investment and energy into bringing that to life,' Bondar says.

It's not just United.

Delta's version - "SkyMiles Experiences' - first rolled out in 2010. Hotel brands also have gotten in on the trend. Starwood's "SPG Moments," for example, debuted in 2007 and has since been incorporated into merger partner Marriott.

"Moments bring our members more of what they want when they travel ... travel experiences in our destinations around the world,' David Flueck, Marriott's senior vice president of Global Loyalty, says about the hotel brand's program.

TODAY IN THE SKY: United's special domestic Boeing 747 flight was a party at 38,000 feet (story continues below)

He says members value "exclusive member-only experiences' that have included private concerts and VIP access to the Super Bowl and to music festivals, including Coachella.

Travel-focused credit cards are on board, too. Chase, which offers a broad portfolio of travel cards, has its own "Chase Experiences' packages. Similar to the airline and hotel offerings, they range from private dinners with award-winning chefs to sports and entertainment options.

"Many of these experiences are very unique,' Harteveldt says about the appeal of such options. "They're not just offering you two tickets to a baseball game or a rock concert. They're offering you backstage passes or access that's not normally open to the public.'

Sandeep Dube, Delta's vice president-Customer Engagement and Loyalty, echoes that sentiment.

"With miles, our members have exclusive access to priceless opportunities including meeting famous singers and sports stars, or dining in a celebrity chef's kitchen,' Dube says.

Like United, Delta also has begun to offer its own behind-the-scenes access.

In fact, Delta also puts its 747s front-and-center as it retired its last versions of the jets last year, auctioning off several seats on a series of ceremonial farewell flights.

TODAY IN THE SKY: Delta Air Lines sends off its Boeing 747s with grand farewell tour (story continues below)

Joe Ziskovsky, also a fan of the legendary 747, was one of the winning bidders for Delta's flights.

"My wife Jami would tell you that I can top this experience, but for me, I know I can't,' said Ziskovsky, of Minneapolis. "Anyone can buy a ticket to a concert or a first-class seat to somewhere, but flying on the Delta 747 as part of the (farewell) tour before she retired was truly unique!'

"We will continue to grow our suite of redemption options to deliver value back to our loyal members,' Dube said, striking a bullish tone for the future of the Experiences effort at Delta.

United also is looking to expand its MileagePlus Exclusives offerings, both with the traditional experiential packages and by giving frequent fliers even more access to airline-insider events.

Already, the airline has experimented with letting fliers bid for sneak-peeks for new frequent-flier lounges and other United events. A recent event gave MileagePlus members early access to United's new Polaris frequent-flier lounge at Newark in New Jersey.

"It was sort of this unique experience that money can't buy,' Bondar says, noting that fliers not only got an early look, but also a VIP experience. "You certainly can get into the lounge if you fly in Polaris. But you wouldn't have the opportunity to talk to the chef, to talk to the maker of the whiskey, to get a tour of the venue."

He says that continuing to find new ways to appeal to frequent fliers - whether it's those with hundreds of thousands of miles or just a few thousand - will determine how successful United's loyalty efforts are.

"If we're just doing the same thing that everyone else is doing, then we're competing with a vanilla offering, and eventually that's not going to work,' Bondar says.

IN PICTURES: A look at United Airlines' Boeing 747 over the years

TODAY IN THE SKY: Delta and the Boeing 747: A brief history

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