Wednesday, January 13, 2010 

In an apparent attempt to ensure that the remaining frequent fliers, those of us who have flown regularly though all the stupid terrorist hoopla, who have tolerated Canadian Proctology, who have stuck with United through delays and lost luggage, to ensure that even we dedicated fliers finally give up, United has started charging even their most frequent fliers for upgrades.

Even global services fliers will be charged $50 to upgrade a segment whether the upgrade is purchased with an “upgrade certificate” or with 15,000 miles (or whatever the amount is). The Very Appreciated Customer is given the illustrated friendly notice as a special finger in the eye thank-you for loyalty.

Either United really does want to keep frequent fliers off their planes or they let complete incompetents come up with their new money scavenging rules. I tend to think the latter, given the way the bag charge has resulted, predictably, in delays and violence on planes as harried passengers fight over overhead space.

If this charge came about through pure incompetence rather than malice, the company has failed to consider the impact of the charge on customers. For example: I fly 4-6 times a week and upgrade most of my flights. This might not seem much of a hardship, but last year I flew about 300,000 miles and at 600 miles an hour that’s 500 hours in planes or 10 hours a week not including waiting on the ground. It is a challenge to work in the confines of coach and it is certainly uncomfortable. If I couldn’t upgrade, I just wouldn’t be willing to fly so much.

That mileage was accumulated on about 200 segments and represented about $100,000 in revenue for UAL. One might reasonably argue that at an average price of $500 per segment a charge of $50 additional, or 10%, isn’t an intolerable penalty. Certainly that is true. It would have made no difference to me to expense $110,000 or $100,000. But that’s not the way this charge works, and UAL apparently failed to even begin to think this through. Because the charge is assessed after the flight is completed I can’t practically expense it. Like most frequent travelers, my time in the air is almost purely work-related. If I get a vacation, what I want to do most is stay at home, not get on a plane. United’s incomprehensibly stupid decision attempts to tax me, personally, $10,000 a year for my loyalty.

Over more than 15 years of far too much air travel, about 1.8 million miles, I have fought many times to book my own flights and I have stuck with United every time. I’ve stuck my neck out to justify what is frequently not the lowest fare because UAL has generally compensated my loyalty with a business-justifiable commitment to getting me where I need to go regardless of weather and other setbacks. But I simply can’t give united $10,000 out of my own pocket, much as I like the employees I have come to know.

I’m hoping UAL fixes this. As life goals go it may not be much, but I was looking forward to 2,000,000 miles.

Just as a note: I’ll be looking into other FF plans (American, Delta) to see if there’s a better deal. I’ll post what I find. My understanding is that airlines are generally willing to transfer the status of frequent fliers for the first year to capture the business.

If UAL needs to do this and wants to keep my business, they could assess a $50 charge at booking so I can expense it. I’d have no problem with adding 10% to my ticket fare to make whatever “lowest available fare” upgradable at no further charge; even if the charge is non-refundable – as long as it is expensible. Similarly, I’d be happy to add $15 to my ticket purchase price (that I can expense) for internet service whereas I would generally not pay the fee on a per-flight basis.

Think, United, think. I have Premiere Exec for life already and I’m so close to RCC for life, don’t blow it now.

Posted at 23:55:41 GMT-0700

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