United Airlines or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love .Bomb

I already wrote about how much benefit I get from my Premier 1K status, but I’ve been thinking about how much my approach toward United Airlines has changed over the year. Here’s the other side of the coin.

The volume of travel I completed in November and December really picked up, but I actually found the travel experience become better, not worse. Why? United has been taking a few steps to improve the customer experience. On the other hand, maximizing my elite benefits and minimizing hassle still seems to take more work than it should.

United executives meet in the Network Operations Center at Willis Tower.

United executives meet in the Network Operations Center at Willis Tower.

At the beginning of the year, it really got on my nerves as every little thing built up throughout the travel day. To compensate, I have lowered my expectations and been happier overall. Does that sound depressing? Maybe. But perhaps I just made my expectations more reasonable. Here are just some of the ways I’ve adjusted my attitude, and it might be a good read if you’re looking to acquire elite status for the first time.

Customer Service

This, more than anything, has the potential to be a feed-forward system. If you are mean and rude and testy with the employee, he or she is more likely to return the favor. Now, I may not intend to be rude, but sometimes I get grumbly when my expectations aren’t met. But be nice, and often employees will reciprocate.

I’ve tried to make my expectations more reasonable for a legacy U.S. carrier (read: “as long as I get there…”) and at the same time I think United’s front-line employees have also improved significantly. There was an adjustment period on both sides when United and Continental merged that has largely run its course.

So often people only write to 1KVoice or Customer Care only to complain. But even if I were to do that, I rarely run into situations that are bad enough to warrant both a complaint AND compensation. The only point of the complaint is to vent. Instead, I have started consciously looking for at least one excellent model of customer service and writing a letter of praise after each trip. Happy thoughts, just think happy thoughts… :D

Upgrades

If it’s a transcon, I give up on my cheap G fares, or I apply an upgrade certificate if I really want it. Regional upgrade, systemwide upgrade, it doesn’t matter. I have decided an upgrade is an upgrade is an upgrade. Since most of my travel tends to be domestic, I don’t worry about whether I’m using a Global Premier Upgrade on a domestic flight. At least with those routes, I don’t need to have a W fare or higher.

United reservations agents use SHARES to search for elusive R availability.

United reservations agents use original SHARES technology to search for elusive R availability.

Most of the time I just route myself through Houston. As a former Continental hub, for which OnePass members only needed to earn 75,000 EQMs to get top-tier status, I seem to be higher on the upgrade list with 100,000 EQMs under my belt. It works out better for mileage runs anyway, and my upgrade percentage through that hub is higher than any other.

Companion Upgrades

It used to really bother me that SHARES required me to split my reservation to add myself and a companion to the upgrade waitlist at check-in. My upgrade chances always seemed to be slim anyway when I traveled with Megan, and this rule would screw up the rest of our itinerary if we had multiple segments. It’s not about who gets the upgrade if there’s only one seat left; we just want to sit together, wherever we are. Gate agents at the old United would even call me up to the podium and ask if we were okay being split up.

I’ve started booking a lot of one-way flights so that if we have to split the PNR, at least it only affects that day’s flights and not the return journey. International fares are often significantly cheaper when you book round-trip, but domestic flights (again, my bread-and-butter) are usually just the sum of two one-ways.

Second, I’ve learned that you can still get upgraded within the check-in window even if you haven’t checked in. This has happened a couple times now, where it was under 24 hours before departure, our names were NOT on the upgrade waitlist, and yet we still got upgraded TOGETHER. So I see no benefit to checking in at T-24. We just wait until arriving at the airport.

Promotions

For whatever reason, United doesn’t target me for their promotions. So I don’t target them. My money gets spent on other airlines, hotels, and shopping portals that do have promotions. I just try to put it behind me. There is only so much money I have to spend. So as long as an opportunity exists somewhere, it doesn’t have to be one with my primary carrier. I already earn 200K miles a year just through flying, which is enough for me.

On the other hand, follow through for those who do get targeted seems poor. When United offered several thousand bonus miles this summer to those who booked a few extra flights, some of those miles posted incorrectly. The response? Cancel everyone’s bonus miles and make them wait until they could be re-posted correctly.

For the Star MegaDO, United graciously offered to give participants some redeemable and elite miles for the charter, which doesn’t normally earn any. Many of us were counting on those miles to requalify. TWO MONTHS came and went with no explanation as we passed into a new year, until we finally got notice today that they would be posting by the end of the week. In the meantime, we entertained ourselves with jokes like this one from The Flying Nun:

Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Not your PQMs.

Yuk yuk.

Social Media

Amol had a good experience, and I know a few other people have. But there’s no personal interaction like you would see from American Airlines, Hyatt, or National, which will routinely chat about almost anything like a normal person. Just to be upfront, @United will respond if there is an actual problem. I will give them that. But they have as much personality as a dead fish.

  • @HackMyTrip: “I’m flying a new 739 with the Boeing Sky Interior!” @United: “Thank you for flying United today.”
  • @HackMyTrip: “Thanks for the companion upgrade at the 96 hour window! Good job, United.” @United: “Thank you for flying United today.”
  • @HackMyTrip: “Ugh. 1K accepted VDB, it’s midnight, and the only option is a Comfort Inn 20 minutes away.” @United: “Thank you for flying United today.”

None of these comments really required a response, but for the love of all that is good in this world, please mix it up! How about “Enjoy your flight”? Or maybe “We’re sorry we couldn’t meet your expectations today”? Anything to show they actually read the tweet and aren’t providing a canned response.

Jack Ripper makes the announcement that pre-departure beverages will now include pure grain alcohol.

Jack Ripper announces that pre-departure beverage choices will now include pure grain alcohol.

So while I’m sipping my pre-departure beverage and waiting for the doors to close, I fire off a tweet or two to United just to test the limits of what they’ll ignore. And since these days I’m just using them for entertainment, I guess we’re both happy with that arrangement. :)

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Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • Ryan from MA

    love the movie reference. great movie!

  • AKold

    So is United = Dr. Strangelove in this? :D

    • Scottrick

      All those nervous tics should would make sense. Maybe Dr. Strangelove, being so charismatic, is Jeff Smisek. I didn’t plan it that far. What I want to know is, who is Captain Mandrake?

  • SEABrad

    Scott – awesome post and read. This is so true : “To compensate, I have lowered my expectations and been happier overall.” It often applies in many aspects of life as well. I somewhat work in customer service and it is amazing how ignorant? people can be sometimes. I just have to relax and go with it – in the grand scheme of things this is mostly just fun for us right?

    • Scottrick

      Absolutely. I’m lucky I get to travel this much. There should be some minimum expectations in return for loyalty, but they can only do so much.

  • kyunbit

    I absolutely love the title. One of the most innovative I have seen on boardingarea

    • Scottrick

      I was glad to find the images, too. Just my luck the bombers used Plan R!

  • TheFlyingNun

    Thanks for the shout-out on my corny joke!

  • Glenn

    As a long time 1K I agree with everything you said and really appreciate the humor!

  • appstorechronicle

    I love the doctor strangelove references. Old School. Thanks for the great post.