Mid-year Thoughts On United’s Upgrade Policy

I’ve been flying quite a bit this year on United, and can’t say I’ve been that happy.  United’s been going through a bunch of changes as part of the Continental merger.  Despite that, I’ve had a few instances (including a 5-hour 2 plane delay).  There are a good number of threads by unhappy customers on Milepoint.

As I got to midyear (and missed two upgrades in a row), I decided to break down how my upgrades with United are going.  First, for those that might not understand the difference between the two airlines as far as complimentary upgrades are concerned, here’s a quick tutorial:

AA awards 4 500-mile upgrade certificates for every 10,000 miles flown to all Gold and Platinum members of the program (the bottom two elite tiers).  If it wasn’t obvious, you need one certificate to upgrade a flight up to 500 miles in length, 2 for 1000, etc.  These certificates can also be purchased.  They are redeemable on any flight on an AA plane (or AA metal as we call it) in the continental US as well as Mexico, the Caribbean, parts of Central America and Canada.  AA gives unlimited upgrades to it’s Executive Platinum members, their top-tier elites.

UA, on the other hand, gives complimentary upgrades to all elites in roughly the same geographic areas.  UA offers some upgrades to Hawaii and some intra-Asia while restricting them on a few US flights (JFK-LAX and JFK-SFO).

I have had a bit of an abnormal travel experience over the last few years.  I fly mostly out of IAD, which is a weaker market for American Airlines, my primary carrier.  Over the course of 3 years and 300+ flights, AA upgraded me for all of those flights except for 4.  So, a 99% success rate for upgrades.

I’ve had 48 flights on UA so far this year.  Of those 48 flights, 39 were on planes that had a First-Class cabin and thus could qualify for an upgrade.

Of those 39 flights I missed 15 upgrades, which means I sat in F 24 times for an upgrade percentage of roughly 62%. A good amount of my UA travel this year has been between two of their hubs (IAD and DEN) which should impact my ability to get upgrades to some degree.  However, as someone holding a fairly high level of status with UA (I’m a 1k, there’s another level above with unpublished qualifications called Global Services), I’m fairly disappointed with this percentage.

When the new system rolled out in March of this year, I waited with anticipation to see how good or bad it would be for me.  Others, like long-time UA proponent View From the Wing started considering a move elsewhere.  The big problem that many anticipated was a change in how upgrades were given on United, as detailed here.

Based on my comparison of the two airlines, UA’s policies haven’t been very good for me.  I wasn’t 1K for all of 2011, but my percentage was higher then.  This could be attributable to a greater number of elites now that Continental and UA have merged the frequent flier programs, or it could be because of the change in how they hand out upgrades.

Frankly, I don’t really care which it is.  I plan to finish my 100,000 miles on UA this year to retain my 1K status for 2013.  After that, I highly doubt I’ll be flying 100K on them in 2013.  I feel I was generous to UA above in my percentages since a few of the routes I flew that didn’t have a First Class section would have had an F section if I’d chosen to fly AA.

There are proponents of the UA program that will say I’m not entitled to a complimentary upgrade on every flight, that I’m entitled to a comfortable seat on the plane (hopefully in Economy Plus) and that getting upgraded 60% of the time is better than some passengers.

But I think it’s a pretty easy decision for me.  The difference as an AA Executive Platinum is noticeable not just in the upgrade percentages, but a pretty significant difference just on upgrades.  I’m sure I’ll continue to use UA out of convenience for short hops such as IAD-LGA (although I could fly IAD-JFK and get AA miles through JetBlue) and some hub-to-hub travel such as IAD-DEN.  And, I’ll continue to redeem miles for premium cabin travel on Star Alliance carriers worldwide.

Barring a change in these numbers through the rest of the year (and some better customer service wouldn’t hurt), though, I think the end of the runway for my UA 1K relationship is approaching.


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