In a move no doubt related to its upcoming partnership with Continental, United Airlines announced on today that they will begin offering unlimited complimentary domestic upgrades to elite Mileage Plus members starting next year.  Members will no longer need to earn and burn electronic 500 mile upgrades, and requests for upgrades will be automatically entered.  This is a system similar to Continental, Delta and US Airways.  (Hat tips to One Mile at a Time and View from the Wing)

American is now the only “Big 5” carrier with the 500-mile electronic upgrade system where members spend electronic upgrades in 500 mile increments.  American’s Executive Platinum members receive complimentary upgrades while Platinum and Gold members earn four 500 mile upgrade credits for every 10,000 miles flown.  American also sells 500 mile upgrades for $30 dollars per unit (more if purchased from a live agent).

I’m not a regular United flier anymore, so this isn’t a big deal for me.  The question I have is what are the implications of this change to my primary program, American AAdvantage?  Frankly, I like American’s system just fine as it is.  I’ve had great success in upgrading as a Platinum, and even as a Gold member of AAdvantage.  I think the need to “pay” for your upgrade in some way with American results in more seats being available for those who really want to upgrade while other elites who may have spent all their upgrades or are inclined to sit in the back with their non-elite friends remain in coach.

Apparently, more details about the changes United is making will be forthcoming tomorrow.  I’ll watch with interest.  But right now, I hope this is one move that American does not copy.