Once you earn status it’s a tough thing to give up, especially as the gap between the benefits for elites and non-elites/lower elites has grown over the last few years. And I’m perfectly willing to admit that I’m addicted to status. But every relationship has it’s tipping point and I reached mine earlier this week, though not in spectacular fashion.
It was more a realization of all the facts in evidence as opposed to one lightning rod event that caused me to cancel two mileage runs I had scheduled in March, essentially waving the white flag on 1K status with United Airlines. I’ve been 1K the past two years, and it’s certainly much better than lower status levels. So much so that I scheduled two crazy overnight trips to Dubai to ensure I’d have enough miles to requalify when there were some ultra-cheap tickets on sale last year. I started having misgivings about being away two extra weekends from the family and decided to sit down and lay out the positives and negatives to United Airlines and my 1K status. The title already spoils the outcome of the post, so here’s a breakdown of the areas where I think United fails to deliver the value to me to maintain loyalty.
Available Flight Times/Schedule Trimming:
There are two main reasons why I switched to United a few years ago. At the urging of my friends more familiar with United, I was shooting for better available flight times and non-stop flights between Washington-Dulles (IAD) and Denver. For the early part of the year the schedule was absolutely gutted. Things have returned to a bit of normalcy, but the morning flights to Denver are now no longer a great fit. If I take the 8am-9sh flight (currently 8:15) that’s too early for me to be able to take my daughter to the bus in the morning. The 9:40am flight now gets there after the first flight of the day on American (connecting through DFW).
This isn’t a huge difference, but when I first started flying United I used to be able to take my daughter to school and get to Denver before American could get me there. Now I have to choose.
Non-Stop Flight Pricing:
United’s non-stop flight pricing is out of control in some markets. Don’t get me wrong. If I could charge 3 times my closest competitor for service between two cities and get away with it, I would as well. But, this discussion isn’t about United’s business, it’s about my business. And, for certain markets, it really is a stark difference, especially when I buy a one-way fare. Between IAD and Las Vegas I can generally find $200 one-way tickets. On a consistent basis, even more than a month out, United wants over $600 one-way. When you book it as a round-trip, they’re still essentially double.
These aren’t “always” types of circumstances. But, often enough this is what I find lately when booking United. And, as I try to squeeze in multiple destinations into one trip from time to time so I can be home more, it’s problematic to marry one-way fares at times into something reasonably priced.
Seattle and Denver are both similar markets, where the one-way fares are sky high between those cities and IAD.
As a 1K I receive Global Premier Upgrades (GPU), valid for a one-way upgrade to the next class of service on any United flight (their metal only, and a more limited benefit with Lufthansa). I also receive Regional Premier Upgrades which are also valid for an upgrade to next class of service but are more limited as to where they can be used (my primary area of use is the United States).
In both full years as a 1K I did not use up my allotment of GPUs and RPUs. For starters, GPUs required a higher fare class, whereas the equivalent on American Airlines (the SWU) do not. If the upgrade can’t be cleared at the time of booking, you could be stuck paying a higher fare for nothing.
I’ve found periodic uses for the RPUs, but they generally don’t clear for me on the flights that I need them to. I’ve ended up giving away GPUs and RPUs to friends and family the last two years.
Sure, they’re moving much more quickly than they have in the past in adding Wi-Fi to their fleet. But they’re still very far behind the competition. Right now, I can pretty much guarantee connectivity on every American Airlines flight. I’ve had a handful of United flights with Wi-Fi and on some of those the service was inoperable.
Number of Premium Seats:
When I first started flying United regularly between IAD and DEN, 767s were a regular part of the daily schedule. On those flights, with over 40 business class seats, an upgrade was reasonably able to score. It wasn’t just the sheer number of seats, it was also the total number of flights. Since then, there are less flights per day and the biggest plane flying the route is a 757-200, sporting 24 F seats. About half the flights have 12 seats or less in F. That makes it a lot more difficult to score an upgrade.
Smaller planes also means less Economy Plus seating and less empty seats overall. That’s a reality all over the industry, not unique to United. And yet, I’m still at 98% upgrade clearance on American. Part of that is due to the fact that IAD-DFW and DFW-DEN are not elite heavy routes, part is due to the fact that American has a higher percentage of F seats on those planes, and part is due to the way American upgrades its top tier elites, Executive Platinum members. All of those favor me.
Not too long ago United rolled out new baggage sizers at their gates. They didn’t actually do anything with them, but the rumor is that they’ll likely do something shortly. If I have to check a bag on the majority of my UA flights, that likely adds an average of 15 minutes to each of my flights. That further reduces any scheduling benefit United has over American. In absolute minutes, the UA flight is shorter. But when all scheduling details are taken into account it’s a lot less of an advantage than it used to be.
Massive Devaluation to Mileage Program:
A few months have passed since Black Friday, when United gutted it’s award chart. The part of United that appealed most to me when I started flying them was the ability to fly Lufthansa out of IAD. United increased this cost substantially when they rolled out their new award chart. Now, what used to cost me 100,000 miles to fly business class across the pond costs 140,000 miles. The new chart is bad for my style of travel.
American is due for a devaluation at some point as well. And, they already feature painful fuel surcharges on their biggest European connection partner, British Airways. But their chart really isn’t that bad overall and as long as they don’t take a more painful tact than United, it likely needs up on par or better with what UA is offering.
There is a clear delineation between the general customer service United employees practice and American employees practice from my general experiences. Don’t get me wrong. There are bad American employees and great United employees. But, they are the exception and not the rule. United used to offer very generous compensation when things went wrong. Now, they’re more in line with American and their overall performance is not improving. Couple that with employees that genuinely look like they don’t want to be there (not all, but a noticeable number of them) and United is on the losing end of this comparison for me.
Bottom Line It For Me, Ed
None of these areas is enough of a deficiency on the part of United (or a positive on the part of others) to make me choose to book elsewhere. And, for each point, there are surely individuals who have a counter-point and suffer the same deficiency with American or Delta.
But, I just don’t see the way forward for United. Jeff Smisek has been in charge long enough without a focus on service that I can’t rely on him to wake up tomorrow and decide it’s more important than anything else. The portion of the fleet I spend time on is old and needs updating. The fleet is getting newer, but not in ways that benefit me at the moment.
If my priorities are your priorities as a business traveler, you’ve got to stop and think whether it’s worth chasing status with United right now. American has a big pill to swallow with their merger and things could get really bad in the next 12-18 months. They certainly did for United the last 18 months or so. But, until that happens, an erosion of benefits and customer service as well as a concerted effort to focus on getting the customer to spend more while providing them less makes it a losing equation for me.
I won’t be shooting for 1K any longer this year. I may end up there if the flight times make sense so I can be with my family when I want to be. It’s a long year with a lot of flying left to go and a lot can happen.
But I won’t be going out of my way to book United. One person doesn’t make a difference to a bottom line for a large company and I’m not starting a campaign. I’ll vote with my wallet as often as I can.
United took the fun out of flying for me, inch by inch. I won’t find parties beyond my wildest dreams elsewhere, but it’ll likely be more comfortable and friendlier.