Why I’m Leaving United Airlines

In a comment on one of last week’s posts, a reader asked for a more detailed explanation of why I’m leaving United Airlines for American Airlines or Alaska Airlines. I’ll try to satisfy the request. Be aware that this post is a bit of a rant. A fair one, I think, but not everyone wants to read rants.

I want to start by saying that United is a great airline when things work. Their website is one of the best. It’s easy to search for award flights, find information, look at the upgrade standby list, and so on. I think the new mobile app is a step down from what United used to offer, but it still isn’t bad. The remodeled international fleet provides a pleasant travel experience. And I consistently receive excellent customer service from the email support team at 1K Voice.

But lots of airlines look good when things work. The point of loyalty, in my mind, is so that when the going gets tough and I need the airline to support me, I know they have my back. I don’t get that feeling from United Airlines. There are several cogent posts in this FlyerTalk thread about the general situation at United. I particularly like posts #9, 10, and 13, but PV_Premier’s comment sums it up:

It’s hard work to be a UA frequent flyer, you have to be on your game all the time watching out for yourself and you have to know how to use the rules to your advantage to feel like you’re getting the most from your $$.

And isn’t that what loyalty ought to be about, to make the customer feel like his or her dollars are welcome at the company? I admit that I am probably not United’s most profitable customer, yet I disagree that it should be my fault for booking what they choose to publish. I don’t book random trips just to earn miles whenever a mistake fare pops up. I book flights to places I already want to go, I’m usually flexible such that I can pay low fares, and I book enough of these that I earn elite status in the process.

My tickets are frequently for off-peak times and days when there is unsold inventory, so fares are naturally lower and upgrades easier to obtain. Scaring off people like me doesn’t really gain United anything. An empty seat is lost revenue, and rarely am I on a plane that is completely sold out.

Imposing a new requirement for Premier Qualifying Dollars implies that people like me who purchase excess capacity are no longer good enough for United. Yes, there ways around PQD, and even the benefits to a mere Premier Platinum member might be worth spending $25,000 per year on a co-branded credit card for such a waiver. But I struggle to get over the indignation I feel that United even bothers to track revenue outside its Global Services program. It’s incredibly unfriendly to customers, and I have boycotted companies for less.

I think this is enough to explain my position, but I will briefly discuss some key areas where United could improve if it wanted to keep my business.

Treat Frequent Flyers as if They’re Special

…because if you treat me like any other passenger, then I might as well be any other passenger and pick the cheapest/most convenient option.

The last time I asked a gate agent to protect me on a later flight when it looked like I would miss my connection I was told, “We don’t do that anymore.” I have never received any proactive compensation or reaccommodation for delays, malfunctions, and other general screw-ups.

TODs have cut the number of complimentary upgrades. Meal frequency, quantity, and quality have been cut. Flights have been cut such that I often find myself on regional jets up and down the West Coast. And I wish United would just offer its elite members a free drink in economy class rather than make me carry around stupid drink coupons. Such a simple gesture provides an opportunity to recognize a loyal customer. I can’t remember the last time I was personally thanked for flying United today.

Most frustrating: Calls to the 1K phone line are often not routed to the 1K desk. I’ve talked about this with United employees, and they say that United would rather get me to an agent faster, even if that agent is less experienced. I responded that if I had an easy request, I would handle it online. Making me hang up and call again three times to reach a competent representative only makes me angry.

Be More Welcoming of Customer Feedback

One of the most shocking experiences I’ve ever had as a United customer was when a friend introduced me to a United corporate employee at Star MegaDO 4 — a great opportunity for outreach and brand promotion — and that employee looked me in the eye and said, “Oh, you. We don’t care for your blog.” And that was it. I offered to have a conversation and see if anything could be done to work together, but he literally turned his back on me and walked away.

While the hostility may have been directed only at me, to the best of my knowledge, United performs no outreach with travel bloggers. United has only recently (and sparingly) started using my first name in Twitter, which is not that hard to find through my blog even if it isn’t listed on my account profile. I don’t necessarily expect them to reach out, but I find it remarkable because American Airlines and other competitors — who I don’t fly as often — have made this effort.

Putting any special influence from the blog aside, it would be nice if United merely acknowledged me as one of their frequent customers. I know special events take place. I know there is a beta version of the United website. I know there is a forum for discussing improvements to MileagePlus and the airline in general. I’ve never been invited to partake in any of these.

I May Be a Frequent Flyer, but I’m Not a Valued Customer

Some people with the same complaints I have might have switched to a different carrier long ago. The short answer to why I put up with so much hassle is that I valued MileagePlus. I got to travel as I pleased, pick up a few upgrades, and most importantly I got to share the benefits and the miles with my wife when we traveled together.

The devaluation of MileagePlus was the last straw, even though my initial response was more lukewarm. I felt that I could still redeem my miles for domestic flights and certain business class awards at reasonable rates while using other means to earn and redeem awards with partners like Lufthansa and Singapore.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this meant even more travel on United. And then I realized I don’t want to fly United. Not as a paying customer. Not as an award customer. Not ever, really. It’s a pain. Even flying in first class as a Premier 1K member is not something I look forward to anymore.

If my complaints sound angry or petty or unreasonable, well, I did warn you this was a rant. I try to explain on this blog how to take a rational approach to travel to maximize the value you get from every dollar. Elite status can be a part of that strategy. But elite status also means loyalty to a brand, and that loyalty can include many intangible, emotional elements that don’t always make sense. Even if staying loyal to United made sense financially (I no longer think it does), it would not be worth it to me if I hated myself for flying with them.

So for those of you who will continue to fly United, congratulations on having one less person competing for your upgrade. I wish you well. Clearly not everyone is as upset as I am or United would just go out of business. But I have an opportunity here to switch my allegiance, and I hope I have sufficiently answered the question as to why why I would want to leave.

P.S. — I’ve actually considered abandoning airline status altogether. Leaving United doesn’t necessarily mean I have to join American or Alaska or anyone else. My thoughts on this will be shared tomorrow.

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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  • MilesAbound

    I think you got the balance between ranting and putting forward the facts right. Your last paragraph is the most telling. There are plenty of problems elsewhere, and the business is going to a model where you are simply better off paying for the best product you can afford on any given day.

    • c2588015

      Lifetime UA 350K = UA 0k in the world of big time traveler. UA doesn’t care about you. Your nothing to them. Spending as little as possible and maximizing the experience. When you see big time travelers doing 200k a year in the states with 200 segments for 10 years in a row with 3ok a year in spend, that’s the guy UA wants in the FF program. The frequent spend not the frequent mile. Everyone else is gravy with a worm on the hook. The days of 1990’s air travel are not coming back.

      When you eventually graduate to ‘big boy’ travel, you’ll see they are all the same. DL,AA,AS all have good points to their FF and UA as well. Some do things better than others. A severe devaluation of First Class seats should be expected on some routes. So you were saving your lifetime 350K to do a ASIA FC RT when?

      The Airline industry is changing, good or bad, it’s changing. I think WN would be a better choice than AA/AS with .35 MM under your belt. I would not be surprised in 10 years it’s all CC based and not mileage/$$ spend based.

      • Scottrick

        With most loyalty programs starting at the 25,000-mile mark, and some even lower, I think it’s incorrect to say airlines only care about those flying 200,000 miles or more. Not to say they don’t care about them more than others, but most travelers don’t have any status and yet the airlines still rely on them for a fair chunk of revenue.

  • Andy

    I completely agree with your points. I don’t think you’re whining at all. The whole benefit to being an elite customer is that the airline looks out for you. The free upgrades could be had for miles or cash if you really wanted / needed them. It’s actually stunning watching the difference between American’s twitter working with Ben from OneMileAtATime vs. your interaction with United’s twitter the other day. Even when they finally bothered to respond to you, it even read terse and dripping with disdain.

  • Chris

    I’ve been Platinum or 1k with UA for the last four years, but I gave up on UA for many of the same reasons in your rant. I just did a status match with Alaska, and my business will be going to them and their partners (especially AA) from now on. It’s sad, because three or four years ago I used to tell everyone that UA was a great airline with a great mileage program.

  • Rob Johnson

    UA customer service has been cold lately even when calling the 1k hotline. I believe the PQD requirements will weed down the competition for upgrade space etc. That coupled with what most have been experiencing makes me thankful for not having to fly 75% of the time for business anymore. This reminds me of one flight I took years ago when an irate passenger was at the UA ticket desk demanding an upgrade when all spaces were full and he cries out ” I SPEND OVER $15,000 a year on this airline”, and me sitting there with an upgrade seat and Premier Platinum status with no more than $2500 spent personally. I’m sure many echo the same sentiment as this gentleman does and UA may have listened.

    • Scottrick

      There is some financial sense to favoring the passengers spending the most, but it takes all types — those who buy the cheap tickets in advance and those who buy the expensive tickets close in.

      Personally, I think that passenger was acting like a bit of an asshole. He ought to know the terms of the loyalty program and that upgrades are not just handed out because he thinks he deserves one. It reminds me of another passenger who complained she didn’t get an upgrade because she was only *G with another carrier, and yet I still considered myself lucky to be one who did even though I was 1K.

      • Rob Johnson

        Yeah, those of us who flew loyally with the airline should just get more than a nod. Now we get less than a nod it seems. While flying tpa-den-sfo and sfo-iah on united 5-6 times a month for 5 years that’s saying something more to the airline than, “I spend … On this airline…”, I feel it’s more like saying, I’ve put my time, trust, loyalty and confidence in this company and the proof is in the pudding… The butt in seat meter! There are some choices out there and I feel you’ll make the right choice and many will follow.

  • Fredd

    What you’re writing isn’t a rant at all. It’s a reasonably dispassionate look at the reality of the current situation. The writing is on the wall and the fat lady has sung. As Mrs. Fredd and I stood in “Line 1″ early this morning at SEA to board a (now delayed) flight to EWR, I looked over at the much longer line 2 and heard the GA announce the various credit card holders who are as entitled to use the line as we will be, once our 1K status expires at the end of next year and we fall back on our “lifetime” Million Mile Flyer status. The message is clear. Money talks and loyalty walks – or at least is diverted to Line 2.

    UA could have been a little more straightforward and letting people know the new reality, but that’s business. We’ve had a great ride with the “old” UA and we wish the new UA success in its new business model. We just don’t expect to be a large part of it.

    Cheers,
    Fredd

    • Scottrick

      I’m only at 0.35 MM, so I have the freedom to ditch. United has steadily chipped away at the other things that held me to to them, like their network, credit card, and parter awards.

  • FF

    Great post. I feel the same as you. I merged over from Continental to UAL, and have been 1K or one level below the past 7 years, dating back to pre merger years. Being a FF on Continental was enjoyable, you felt appreciated, and the upgrades were plentiful (they still are on Copa, by the way). Not at UAL. I am not a travel blogger like you, but I have tweeted generic news about Delta and AA and both times I got a response from them saying, “hope to see you on one of our flights soon.” I get better service on Twitter from AA and Delta than I do from UAL in “real life.” I stick with UAL for only a couple reasons: 1) Star Alliance is great, in my opinion. 2) I am very close to 1 million miles. 3) I fly a lot in Latin America so Copa and Avianca are good options for me. But I really, really, really want to leave United and take my business elsewhere. If Delta or AA offered me a status match, I would probably jump and never look back. You’re post was spot on. A balanced look at the situation.

  • Todd

    That was a very fair and balanced, as well as, an excellent post.

    Public companies have to do what’s best for their shareholders, but that doesn’t mean we have to. If that means taking our business elsewhere, so be it. I think many companies lose sight of the fact that loyalty is a two-way street.

    One small typo…”And isn’t that what loyalty out to be about…” I think the work you’re after is ought. ;-)

    • Scottrick

      You know I wrote it because I left those typos in there :) But seriously, I’d been awake for about 24 hours when I wrote this last night on my way home. Glad to see it came out well.

  • Mark

    Probably not the best place to add this… But Alaska just announced that ALL foreign partners are elite qualifying. Which basically means all of their partners (except Penn Air… and Era Alaska) are now elite qualifying… One more reason to love Alaska.

  • guest

    UA is probably high fiving themselves. Getting rid of guys who “hack” flights is exactly why they (and DL) went to PQDs. Now it’s AS turn to have droves of low paying customers taking up elite’s seats and upgrades.
    AS has a great reward program but

    • Scottrick

      I don’t “hack” flights. I buy the tickets United sells. It’s the loyalty program I tried to leverage to my advantage. And if I’m flying on a Saturday at 6 AM from Seattle to Newark via Houston, I don’t think I’m in competition with too many last-minute business travelers.

      As I said, if United’s goal is to lose customers who buy cheap tickets, I’m not sure it will be a successful strategy. United was losing money earlier this year, missed profit goals more recently, has lost even high-value elites to other programs like American Airlines, and is making capacity cuts because it can’t fill its planes. Alaska Airlines has consistently been one of the more profitable domestic carriers.

      • Roy

        Just want to be honest here. If the “loyalty program” is broken, then they’re trying to fix it. Sure you’re “loyal”, but how much are they profiting from you versus somebody who is paying full fare but not as “loyal” (i.e., lower elite status).

        Also, it drive they full fares people away because they’re paying for convenience and not the bull shit. Your comment below: “Personally, I think that passenger was acting like a bit of an asshole. He ought to know the terms of the loyalty program and that upgrades are not just handed out because he thinks he deserves one.” This guy may be frustrated, but I think most people who are business travelers who are paying these fares are smart and would do the logical thing: take their business elsewhere instead of putting up with BS (ironically just like you are preaching in this post). And 15k is not even that much, maybe 1 or 2 international R/T. That’s only a silver elite for “loyalty.”

        Now what would United want to do? Lose the profits from you or them?

        • Scottrick

          If “$15,000 is not even that much” then it sounds like you’re talking about the Global Services program, which generally requires $50,000 spend or more to get in. United has a program for those who spend a lot but fly relatively short distances, and these people do get better service than 1Ks like me.

          I do not think $15,000 is typical spend for business travelers. I know many who fly over 100,000 miles yet will have less than $10,000 in PQDs.

          And you still have not addressed my point about profitability coming from customers of all sorts. Revenue management is about optimizing the profitability of a flight with some revenue coming from a few high value tickets but also other revenue coming from a few low value tickets. Even if my tickets bring in less revenue, there’s no denying that empty seats represent revenue lost forever.

          • Roy

            There is a big difference between 15k and 50k so I would even go there. 50k is more than 3 times 15k if you need the math.

            I don’t know what business you deal with usualy, but $15k is very typical for a profession with moderate amount of travel. As I said, these people pay full or not heavily discounted fares. Schedule and convenience is most important here. Your example of 100k miles and $10k is probably 6 trips to Asia in Economy at non-peak times. Compare that versus someone who pays full fare business/first class which may be around $10k a trip. (This is routinely done. I have done that. And I read your blog. And thank you.)

            You make a good point about profitability coming from all customers. However, this model is only good if profits from you don’t reduce profits from the “more profitable” customers; like Mr. “asshole” infra, who may take his business elsewhere. For example, if I am paying full fare (especially premium cabin), you can bet I’m flying something like SQ instead of UA. In another example, if I fly UA, it will be for something I learn in this blog. Just some perspective…

          • Scottrick

            You’re the one who said $15K wasn’t much and only 1 or 2 flights. It seems plausible that such a business traveler would spend $50K over the course of a year.

            Anyway, I brought up PQDs only as one of the more salient changes that has irked me and others. It is a fair business decision on United’s part even if I think it will backfire. I considered increasing my spend to meet the new requirements. But it would mean paying for more full-fare economy and business/first class tickets. I could do that on another carrier.

            The bigger reason for my departure is not the economics of the program but how I’m treated as someone who already has elite status. I have no guarantee that spending $10,000 vs. $3,000 is going to mean any difference if I’m still Premier 1K, and I am certainly never going to reach the level of GS on my own dime.

          • Roy

            I think you assume a lot. In any case, I’m just putting out another perspective to back up this: “UA is probably high fiving themselves. Getting rid of guys who “hack” flights is exactly why they (and DL) went to PQDs.” Like you said, a fair business decision.

            Your great point and I completely agree: Who would pay full fare for a UA seat while there are much better alternatives on other carriers? Maybe they’re trying to get rid of the glut and then improve the service. Maybe as you say, it’ll backfire.

            But I think the bottom on this, in their perspective, is that a lot of the “loyal” or “elite” customers right now are not the most profitable and taking resources away from more profitable customers. They are trying to fix this.

      • guest

        Sure, you buy tickets. They just happen to be “mistake” fares or fuel dump routes or…? If so, good for you – that’s where “hacking” comes in very handy.

        But you shouldn’t rationally expect to be treated as a premium customer in that case. And that’s why PQDs are an excellent move for the airlines – weeds out those who are savvy (but from UA’s perspective, are “gaming” the system).

        Gotta realize it’s hugely frustrating to be full fare paying customer and not get upgrades/best seats/routes – they are the bread and butter for profitability. Frankly, PQDs are long overdue. The customer who spends the most is the customer who you want to keep. The rest can be treated like cattle as that’s all they are willing to pay for.

        • Scottrick

          I have never booked a fuel dump on United Airlines unless it was one of their own automatic dumps with no 3X involved. Even so, I have not flown one this year.

          I have booked only one mistake fare this year, my recent trip to Milan, which was filed with a base fare of $1 and a full YQ and taxes. How does the customer know if this was a mistake or simply a sale price?

          I think the implementation of PQDs will mean losing money overall even if elite members are on average more profitable. How United will be able to afford more benefits if it’s still losing money will be an interesting dilemma.

  • http://www.batteredluggage.com/ W Brian Duncan (aka IPBrian)

    This was a very interesting read Scott…I am a bit taken aback at the reaction you engendered at SMDO4. That seems completely uncalled for and quite frankly bordering on preposterous given your (and Fredd put it below) reasonably dispassionate look at the reality of points and travel, generally. As always I appreciate your take on things.

    By the way…Welcome to the dAArkside!

    • Scottrick

      I can say it wasn’t a high level executive or even UA Insider (Aaron). But it’s not my goal to name names here.

  • Moggy

    I used to think United services suck, then I flew with AirCanada this summer, boy, their beyond horrible services, from the indifferent crew at the airport to the rude stewardesses on board, made United shine like a new penny! That experience also explains why so many Canadians drive to our country to travel. Shame to such country who insists on eliminating foreign competition and boast about their “great” static economy.

    • Darrin Earl

      Air Canada has been terrible for years, which is one reason why WestJet continues to grow, much like Southwest back in the day in the US.

      As for “eliminating foreign competition”, name me a country that allows foreign airlines to compete on domestic routes.

      Still waiting.

  • Ryan

    I’ve never been elite on UA, but as an AA EXP for the last 4 years, I think AA really does make me feel wanted. My upgrade success is 95%+, the few times I’m in coach (last minute bookings or standby flights) I am always greeted by name and offered a free drink or snack (I love the expression on other coach passengers when the FA says “Thank you for flying with us today Mr. XX, may I get you a free snack or drink?”, it’s almost like they are trying to see if I’m famous!) , the EXP line is awesome, they take care of me during IROPS and they will protect seats on the next flight. Things may change for the worse under the new management, but I have been nothing but happy with my time as an AA elite.

    • Jon

      Even as AA Gold I feel well taken care of by AA. Upgrades are sitting at around 75%, and even MCE is pretty good on the AB side of the MD80’s. I haven’t run into IRROPS too often this year, but the few times I have, things were handled as well as could be.

      We’ll see how things go now that US leadership is taking over at AA, but for the time being, at least, I couldn’t be happier.

  • Antonio Medrano

    What would you consider to now be the best United-centric travel blog? It seems like all the good bloggers have switched over to AA over the past few years.

    • Scottrick

      And what does that tell you? :D

      But seriously, I understand there’s a need out there. Frequently Flying was United-focused, but I think he left after reaching his latest MM requirement. Other than that, the larger, UA-focused blogs are Wandering Aramean and Mommy Points (both at BoardingArea) and Matthew’s Live and Let’s Fly (at UPGRD).

      I think Amol and I will continue to cover newsworthy changes at United.

      • Simon

        Very sadly, frequently flying, passed away on Jan 4th.

        • Scottrick

          Unfortunately, yes. And Wandering Aramean is flying more on American Airlines these days. This leaves Mommy Points and Matthew as the two remaining United-centric bloggers I’m aware of.

    • Amol

      I challenged to United, then quickly gave them up.

  • Shane

    Quite a fair post really. Balanced and reasonable. What I find appalling was how United employee told you “we don’t care for your blog”. That’s a bold slap in the face and a sign of how bad their customer service has gotten. It’s to the point where they still don’t realize why HVFers are leaving yet they are in droves.

  • Janie

    I unfortunately have to disagree. I have been loyal to UAL for 20 years; for 2 years recently (post-Continental merger) I was flying every other week from the west coast to Boston, and received one upgrade (first week in January). Every flight seemed to have at least 40 1Ks, and my sense was that exacerbated their challenges. I guess they’ve decided that given the demand for their program and miles that they can aim low in their treatment of elite passengers?

    • Janie

      i meant unfortunately have to AGREE!

  • Elaine

    Interesting post. But I can’t help but think of MilesAbound’s post yesterday detailing how AA cancels more flights, claiming weather issues, than other carriers, when other airlines are flying the same routes at the same time with no trouble. I hope your new airline of choice gets a better handle on that practice with the US merger, for you as well as all the rest of us! Happy Holidays!

  • Adam P

    Scott, your take is understandable, but I guess I don’t see a better way for airlines to rank customer value than spend. Mileage is too easily gamed. Miles are too easy to accumulate, and given UA and AA’s loose routing rules, elite miles bear little resemblance to customer spend or value.

    When carriers are overwhelmed with elites, denying domestic upgrades to 1Ks, Platinums, etc., right and left, I don’t see what choice they have. DL wisely tightened up its routing rules years ago. Fly much out of your way on a domestic itinerary and the ticket prices for a point to point, even if it isn’t obvious that’s what’s happening.

    I will say that as a DL Platinum I do feel valued by employees and in routine interaction with the airline. Where I don’t feel valued is interacting with a loyalty program that rewards me much less generously than its peers and requires so much work from customers to find value.

    As someone whose travel plans resemble a blend between road warrior and leisure travel enthusiast, I used to feel cheated as DL made it harder and harder to “game” the process. But as I’ve learned more about how many “gamers” are out there, and how they are taking award seats and upgrades away from folks like me who spend far more with the airline, I’ve become unsympathetic to the mileage running, fuel-dumping, travel hacking community and a defender of the ongoing tightening of FF plans.

  • Former MP 100K member

    I wholeheartedly agree and I am leaving United MP as well. I’ve been a loyal MP member for years and I’ll admit I didn’t pay too much attention to the changes until after I flew over 25k miles this year and expected to see that I had reached enough for silver. Then I realized how United is, like the rest of corporate America, pandering to those with money and screwing the rest of us. I’ve flown several hundred thousand miles on United and SA airlines but no more. Many of my trips were pre-booked (I’m a business traveler) and I’m currently at 44.5k miles and $2477 PQD so I still have no status.

    As I do a fair bit of international travel as well I’m accustomed to a certain level of service. United keep slipping farther and farther behind that curve. The last flight I took was from FCO-SEA on United and the service was abysmal. I’m a very low-maintenance flyer but I pressed the call button for some water (was in a window seat with a sleeping neighbor) the woman who responded 10 minutes later was clearly put out by the fact that she had to answer the light.

    That’s one example but in every aspect of the flight, from ticket counter to airplane, United has been consistently showing less and less concern for customer service. I’m done with them. I would have been a potential million-miler with them perhaps another 4-5 years but I have no wish to endure that many more crappy air miles.

    • Former MP 100K member

      “I’m currently at 44.5k miles and $2477 PQD so I still have no status.”

      For this year I mean, last year’s carried over of course.

  • Kit Chang

    I am a 1 Million Miler Mileage plus and a frequent 1K customer; and until this year I have been loyal to UA; because of their customer service. Yesterday I had a call into their customer care line and the operator was rude, unprofessional and had an attitude that said you know what we changed everything in June; and yes we do not F** care about you. (Pardon my French). I am begining to think in the same lines than Scott. Jeff Smisek should be called Jeff iS a Miser; because the new UA cares more about the bottom line than their customers; and currently they are not hurting in revenue so their arrogance is shown. Time will tell whether this new attitude; improves their revenues; if thei DO NOT LISTEN to their biggest asset which is their CUSTOMERS.