Wiping The Slate Clean. My Personal Business Case For Abandoning The Pursuit Of United Airlines 1K Status

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.

Screenshot 2014-03-02 18.42.26 Screenshot 2014-03-02 18.42.51

 

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.

GPU/RPU Usage:

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.

Wi-Fi:

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.

Baggage Sizers:

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.

Customer Service:

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.

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11 Comments

  1. In your shoes I would likely do the same, though I will not take connections when there is a nonstop option unless the price difference is beyond astronomical, and even then I still would book likely with United on a flight with connections and SDC to the nonstop. I see the same insane nonstop sky-high pricing with United out of Houston as well ($1000 to NYC, $800 to ORD, etc). I’m not going for 1K either this year, but that is in part because I just don’t fly 100k miles per year to start with without doing really silly stuff. I am still pushing for Plat with United, but I agree it’s not as fun as it used to be. Let me know if you need help using your RPUs and GPUs I seem to have no problem putting those to use. Ha!

    1. Chuckle, Mommy Points! You’ll be in my mind if and when I’m thinking about wallpapering my office with GPUs and RPUs. As parents, I think things change over time. When Catherine was home all the time, I wanted to be home as much as possible, with no caveat. Same with Charlie. Now, Catherine has school five days a week and Charlie 3 days a week. That means as soon as they’re in school I want to be on a plane so I’m maximizing time away. That’s one of the reasons United’s schedule trimming is impacting me, the ability to where I want, when I want.

      You’re not quite there with Little C, but I’m guessing when she’s in school full time you’ll start looking to maximize those hours as well.

      1. She’s in school, but not the kind you get in trouble if you miss…yet. I’m with you though on mornings. I want to keep the mornings normal and get her to school then fly out whenever possible. Non-stop flights mean I get where I am going with some daylight left. Connections mean it is often mid to late afternoon, at best. Reverse that coming home and it means I see her before bed or I don’t. Non-stop still wins for me and United SDC makes that possible even when I don’t book the flights that way (much of the time). Keep me posted on your wallpapering project. ;)

  2. Ed, It’s only fitting that your post comes out on the 2nd anniversary of the CO/UA merger. Even as a Lifetime Gold (UA MM’er), I more or less departed UA for Southwest (WN). They’re not as bad as you may think.

    1. dhammer, hope you’re doing well. I don’t have a huge problem with WN in the abstract. In my specific travel example, they have two deficiencies.

      As an IAD flyer, the list of flights on WN is small. There are only two frequencies a day to DEN, neither of which anywhere near the times I like to fly.

      And, I like redeeming points for international destinations. I like WN as an airline, not a loyalty program. And I like them much more as an airline if I was primarily traveling point-to-point in the Southwest or West.

  3. I concur with the original post x3. Poor frequency of flights, poor customer service and high prices. Final straw was a broke bike on a combination of UA and LH flights to Europe. UA passed the buck and even when I used the UA Visa to pay the luggage fee UA said tough luck. Thanks Jeff. You lose my $xx,xxx per year.

    1. Kirk, I feel your pain. It seems there’s a good number of folks out there that spend good money on UA who are leaving. I’ve got to imagine they could manage to keep some of these folks with even modest service improvements, all else being status quo. Sorry to hear about your bike. :(

  4. I’m a bit confused by the schedule justification you’re using. If you take the later non-stop UA morning flight you get to take your daughter to the school bus. If you take the earlier connecting AA flight you don’t. At that point the excuse of the early non-stop doesn’t let you take your daughter to school doesn’t make much sense, does it?

    I get saving $350 each way for the connection in Dallas, but that’s a pricing argument, not a scheduling one. The AA schedule requires a minimum of 2 extra hours travel time in each direction.

    On the pricing front, UA made a huge deal going in to the merger about their route network and pricing power. And they never really flexed that muscle. Now they’re finally trying to do so. In Q3 ’13 they said numbers were low because they didn’t properly manage revenue/inventory to capture high yield business traffic. We’ll see if they “tuned” the systems a bit too far to the other end now and lose out by not capturing that same traffic thanks to high fares.

    1. The logic on schedules is like this:

      1. Later UA flight gets me to take my daughter to bus but doesn’t allow me to attend to a full day of meetings. So, first choice is to take daughter to school or get full day of meetings in so I can be home on the final night of a trip as opposed to following morning.

      2. If the choice is to get full day’s worth of meetings in, that means leaving before kids wake up from school. If I choose the UA flight, I get there at roughly the same time or after the connecting AA flight. So, at the point at which I decide to get the full day of work in, I can fly later on UA and sit in coach or fly earlier in F on AA and connect. Since my family is sleeping for both of these flights, there’s no family impact based on which one I choose.

      This is somewhat nullified when UA brings back an ultra-early departure from IAD but that has popped on and off the schedule with enough regularity that I can’t rely on it for a full year of travel.

      The pricing argument is a separate one from scheduling, which is why I listed it in a different section. :)

      I’m going to be interested to see where they end-up on non-stop pricing as well. Separate from my personal travel needs, I’m intellectually curious to see how much more a business traveler will spend to get a non-stop flight consistently.

  5. Your post read as though I was writing it. I am 2.5M miler (lifetime Plat) and have been a 1K for 16 years. But the 40% increase in Business award tickets; being anywhere from 6 to 10 on the waitlist for an upgrade on almost all flights; flights costing around $150 more than competitors; and having 30 – 40% of all my flights cancelled and delayed is the last straw. I have been loyal to United for many years and this year I don’t give a damn. I will probably get to 90K miles and was thinking of doing a mileage run but 1K is not worth it.

    Thanks for sharing your views – now there are 2 people that won’t be giving up their money to United!

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