United Airlines Transition: The Good and The Bad

I had my second set of flights post-migration earlier this week.  I’ve heard from a few very frequent UA fliers I know that they’ve had increased issues getting upgrades to clear since United switched it’s computer system.

Anyway, I’m a 1K, and this was an early morning flight IAD-ORD.  The plane was an Airbus 320, which meant 12 first class seats.  My experience on AA with 6am flights has always been that these flights are the most empty of the day, so I was expecting this to be an easier upgrade to clear.  I bought the ticket almost a month out, so that combined with my status should have put me in pretty good shape.  Despite that, I did not clear the upgrade list by the time I went to check-in the night before my flight.

I decided to wait to check-in until the following morning, and I took a quick look at the seat map.  There were still plenty of empty seats, and ExpertFlyer showed inventory available.  Additionally, I saw 4 first class seats unoccupied.  This is not always a perfect indicator of availability, but can be a somewhat reasonable barometer of what to expect.

The following morning I saw the same 4 first class seats, so I checked in online and headed to the airport.  Upon arrival at the gate, there were 3 people working the flight.  1 appeared to be a Continental employee, which jibed with what I had heard from others, that they were deploying as many veteran CO employees to help the UA employees train.  The CO employee was standing behind the two people working the gate.  A few minutes before boarding, one of the UA agents announced that first class had checked in full, so anyone waiting for an upgrade should board the flight.

I looked around the gate area and it was pretty sparsely populated, as expected.  I then looked at the digital screen over the ticket counter, and it showed the same 4 seats available in first as the night before.  Additionally, the board indicated that there were a total of 12 seats in first, and 8 were checked in.  Since this didn’t jibe with the announcement, I approached the desk.  I showed as 4th on the upgrade list, so I should get an upgrade if the board is correct.

I asked the agent if we had an equipment change to a 319.  The Airbus 319 only has 8 first seats, which would explain why they were only boarding 8.  He said no, that we were still a 320.  I pointed at the board and noted it still showed 4 empty seats.  At this point, the CO employee interrupted me to tell me the board was wrong, and first class was full.  It was pretty apparent to me that if I lost my cool with her I wasn’t getting anything, so I noted in a very unassuming way that those 4 seats were for sale last night, and the board only showed a total of 8 passengers in first.

She told me the information on the board wasn’t the most accurate, and went back to instructing the agent.  I wasn’t entirely sure of what to do at this point, so I stood at the counter without saying anything for a minute.  At this point, about half the passengers had boarded.  The CO agent looked up and saw me still standing there, looked over her shoulder at the board one more time, and then started instructing the agent to “clear all his seats”.

This was a process he wasn’t completely familiar with, so she walked him through it over the next couple of minutes.  Shortly thereafter, 4 boarding passes popped out of the printer.  Then, the CO agent told me I didn’t get the upgrade.

I politely pointed back at the board and noted I was 4th on the list, and it appeared there were 4 seats.  She shook her head and began instructing the agent again.  A minute or two later, another boarding pass popped out and she handed it to me, confirming my upgrade to first.  I don’t know why it didn’t pop out in the first batch.  Not sure if that was a computer glitch or human error.  Nor do I care that much, I did get the upgrade.  Although there’s little question if I didn’t press the issue I would have been sitting in coach.

After I boarded the flight, they filled the other first class seats.  And, two of the people who sat there definitely didn’t look like typical F fliers.  Very well could have been, you can never really tell since most people (including me) don’t wear suits and ties in first anymore. But, I didn’t see a gate agent board the plane to find people in coach who would have already cleared.  And, since I boarded with the last group of people, there’s really no way 3 other 1Ks were all waiting quietly at the gate to sit down in coach last.

On the plus side, one of the old CO (and new United) policies is that purchasing an M class fare has perks for 1Ks.  An M fare is not a full-fare coach ticket, which normally earns an automatic upgrade to first.  However, M fares are usually priced higher than discount or deep-discount fares.  They’re generally the lowest fares available when purchasing a ticket a few weeks before departure, but they can be $400 or $500 versus $200 for a deep discount or $800 for full fare.  The new perk is that these fares are instant upgrade faresif you’re a 1K.

This, in and of itself, is not a reason for me to shoot for 100K miles on United this year, but it is a plus I don’t enjoy now.  And, this makes sense to me.  In the past, if I made a change as a 1K to my ticket fairly close to departure, UA may have already started upgrading lower status customers (inside 72 hours).  Just like the new policy change that Economy Plus is only available at check-in for bottom-tier elites, this change should accommodate more business customers paying higher fares.

Still, UA has a number of things that need to get fixed quickly if I’m going to consider making the run to 1K again.

About the Author

My goal in life is to fill my family’s passports with stamps, creating buckets of memories along the way. You’ll find me writing about realistic ways for normal people to travel the world, whether you’re on a budget or enjoy luxury. I also enjoy taking us on the occasional detour to explore the inner workings of the travel industry.

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