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On the last full day of the Star Alliance MegaDo I had a chance to meet with big wigs from United’s Mileage Plus program and their IT department. We met in focus groups held at United’s headquarters in downtown Chicago at the Willis Tower. The purpose of the focus groups was to get the chance to really share information with United, as well as ask questions face to face. If you fly United at all you likely know that the merger with Continental has been anything but a seamless transition. Ever since their systems integrated March 3rd, it has been…interesting. Many frequent flyers have been left with a relatively bad taste in their mouths as they have been hit with delays due to computer system meltdowns, have seen their complimentary upgrades sold for “tens of dollars” to non-elite members, and have had a frustrating time doing simple things like getting to the right department on the phone.
A fellow MegaDoer informed me that when they asked a United employee at the airport the day before if they would be at the sessions the following day they basically said “Thank goodness, no!”. United knew they had a bunch of not-so-happy frequent flyers on their hands, and that it wasn’t going to be all rainbows, kittens, and unicorns at the sessions. To their credit, they were still willing to meet face-to-face knowing there would be some tough questions. They were also willing to have the tough questions asked instead of sticking to pre-selected questions, or just giving some Power Point presentation. We didn’t always like the answers, but it takes a lot for a company to agree to participate in that exchange in the first place, so major props to United for that!
Here is some info that was shared from each of the two sessions I was selected to attend. I will say in advance that if you aren’t a pretty frequent United flyer, then many of the questions/answers are likely not very relevant as most of the session was focused on issues that frequent flyers face.
- They know there is an issue with the complimentary upgrade process and non-elites being offered cheaper upgrade fares than elite members. It was a bit unclear what the actual process is intended to be in terms of selling discounted upgrades to elite and non-elite members, as they did make a point of saying they prefer to sell upgrades from a revenue standpoint rather than give them away. However, they absolutely admitted the current system is not functioning as intended. It was my impression that the seemingly dynamic pricing system where a non-elite member is sometimes offered an upgrade for “tens of dollars” when an elite member is offered the same upgrade for hundreds of dollars is not intentional. As a side note, I can say that before I was an elite UA flyer (became elite in July) I was often offered very cheap same-day upgrades, and it has not happened once since I became an elite flyer.
- United acknowledged there have been problems with the upgrade list and transfer of the list at different points, such as at 24 hours, and then to the gate agent. There are apparently several different systems in play that don’t work together to form a seamless process. When we met with the Mileage Plus folks, we spend about 70% of the time on the upgrade issues and didn’t really get any concrete specifics on what is in play to make it better. We were told it is getting worked on, but that was about as specific as it got. The conversation honestly started to get a little heated, and an organizer of the MegaDo had to intercede to move us on to another topic and keep things rolling. Upgrades are no joke to elite flyers. As another side note, I was 15 of 60 on the “waiting to be upgraded” list today. Moving on up with my newly minted United Gold status! I have not received any complimentary upgrades thus far as a United Silver, or brand new Gold.
- We were told that there currently are no plans to change the way that the international system-wide upgrades function. You earn these upgrades by being a United 1K (top tier) elite flyer, but to use them you must purchase at least a W fare. These fares are typically several hundred dollars higher than the lowest available fare, and even then you are often put on a “wait list” and your upgrade may or may not clear. It was described as “paying several hundred dollars just to gamble” by a person in attendance. In contrast, American Airlines gives their top tier elite flyers system-wide upgrades that can be used on virtually any paid fare. A few in the audience informed United that this has made them switch their loyalty to American.
- United seems very pleased with their co-branded credit cards with Chase, and said they had no plans to partner with any other banks at this time. They also said that they would prefer folks to use their co-branded card to earn miles rather than transfer them in through Ultimate Rewards. They didn’t mention any plans to change the relationship through Ultimate Rewards, but it was clear their preference is toward their own cards.
- They were asked about the potential to introduce “household accounts” similar to what British Airways has available so that family members can share miles without paying hefty fees to transfer. This basically received a simple “no” answer.
- United acknowledged there are some problems currently with their website showing Lufthansa award availability that isn’t really there. We were told that the system may be recognizing something like revenue ticket availability as award availability and incorrectly displaying that information. They are working on the problem.
- Along those lines, The Points Guy asked about his situation where he had a reward ticket issued through United on Swiss Airlines (a Star Alliance partner) that was not honored by Swiss. He had a ticketed and confirmed reservation, but when he got to the airport to fly Swiss, he was told the ticket didn’t work and no one was able to fix it in time. He was also told “that happens a lot with United”. He ended up having to spend miles to fly on One World airlines to get to Europe that night. He has written to many different contacts at United and had received no response. He question was what should he have done in that situation, and he didn’t really get an answer. However, the United reps did seem genuinely concerned that had happened and wanted to specifically look into what went wrong in his case.
- An audience member asked how much United has to pay their partners when someone makes an award redemption, and while the question was not answered directly, United did confirm that they do have to pay some amount for those seats and that the amount varies from carrier to carrier.
- They did not release any information about potential changes to the MileagePlus program in 2013.
I truthfully was not very excited about going to this session since I would have preferred to go to the social media session, however it turned out to actually be a pretty good session. It felt much less heated than the MileagePlus session, even though there were the same number of questions and same type of concerns.
- The biggest piece of info was that two days prior to this session funding was approved for a fix to the upgrade system. The estimated time was 6-8 months from now for the solution to be implemented. I think that information would have probably been useful to share with the group in the first session since so many of the questions/complaints were on that topic, but at least it was shared in this session.
- The IT crew was very willing to accept blame and responsibility for the myriad of technical issues that have been facing United since the March integration. They didn’t seem to deflect or dodge anything related to these glitches.
- The overall theme from them was that while they continue to have to fix some things now (like the upgrade process), their focus is on building a whole new system for the future that will be (hopefully) much better and more internet-based. They acknowledge this means that some things won’t get better right away, but they made the decision to work toward the future and not spend as much time “bandaid-ing” current problems. A target date of 2014 was mentioned for completion of this brand new and integrated system.
I left those sessions feeling like at the very least United does understand most of the problems. They do know that some of their most loyal customers are unhappy. Some of the complaints by the frequent flyers in the room did sound like very “first class problems” to most (and in actuality many of the complaints were related to accessing first class seats). I kind of feel like I have two feet in different worlds when hearing some of the complaints, because while I am flying more and more, I’m not a top tier flyer who has grown accustomed to those sorts of perks. On the other hand, I absolutely believe that a customer who has been loyal to United with their business in exchange for the elite benefits, should have those benefits delivered as intended.
I do believe that they are working toward solutions for many of the problems, but some of them are still a ways off. Since I fly United myself, and am dedicating almost all of my paid flights to them, I personally want United to get better. I think they are overall heading in the right direction, especially on the IT end of things, but expect a few more bumps in the air before they get there.
Again, I really do greatly appreciate United dedicating the time and resources to meet with us face to face, and I hope that they will continue to allow customers the chance to really share feedback and ask the tough questions. After the sessions we all were brought together to hear directly from United President and CEO Jeff Smisek. I’ll share that information in a separate post.