Seriously, Who is Flying United?

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I’m flying less this year for a variety of reasons, and when I do fly I am more and more feeling the pull to book based on price and price alone.  Of course when I’m not flying using miles, I’ve always booked based on price as a primary driver, but other things did factor into play at least to some extent.

Since I strongly prefer nonstop flights and live in Houston, I have been pretty darn loyal to United the last several years.  I have had either United Platinum elite or top tier 1K elite status the last three years, and give United preference even when the cost is slightly higher than the competitors.  I don’t mind paying a small(ish) premium to earn and use my elite benefits and take a nonstop flight on United instead of one with connections.  However, we have just about hit a breaking point.  In fact, I am seriously wondering who is flying United these days.

Here’s the most recent example…

My husband started a new job a couple of weeks ago and had to book his first business trip last week.  He needed a simple Houston to Denver round trip flight and a couple of nights of hotel.  It was his first time navigating his new company’s travel booking website, and he asked for my help in figuring out why the United flights were displaying one price when you searched and another when you went to actually book.

Turns out that was happening as the first screen was displaying the lowest price possible for your dates on that carrier, but to get that price you had to get home from Denver via a red-eye to Las Vegas and then on to Houston.  The decent flight times on United were much more expensive.  In fact, a simple Houston – Denver round trip booked several weeks in advance was about $650 on United (a couple hundred less if you want the Vegas red-eye).  The other options on the same dates included:

Spirit Airlines $107 (nonstop)

Frontier Airlines $122 (nonstop)

US Airways $187

American Airlines $245

….then another $400 later you had the United options.   I have to assume that if United is charging those prices, someone must be paying them, but what I can’t figure out is who.  Clearly it would be tough for a leisure traveler to justify paying 6x the lowest price just to fly United.  Common sense then says it must be business travelers who are paying the premium for the nonstop options (though Spirit and Frontier are also nonstop).

However, how many people work at businesses that are totally fine with their employees spending 6x the necessary amount on airfare?  My husband’s travel policy seems to be that you can spend up to $200 more than the “lowest reasonably priced airfare option”.  The online system pegged the $122 Frontier option as the lowest reasonable option, so he could spend up to $322 on his airfare without getting additional exceptions or approvals.  That left him able to pick from pretty much any available carrier, other than United.  Even at his old company that had a pretty flexible travel policy a $650 round trip ticket to Denver booked in advance would have raised eyebrows.

In the end the American Airlines flight times were the best ones within his price range on this trip.  He is bummed about not using his elite perks on United and having to connect in Dallas, but there was just no way to justify the insane additional expense to fly United, even for a business trip on someone else’s money.

I know this issue is not unique to United, and you will sometimes see this sort of behavior out of the respective hubs from the other airlines, but I just wonder when customers (even business customers) will say “enough is enough” and head to greener cheaper pastures.  Paying a slight premium for a particular airline or flight schedule is justifiable in many cases, but paying 6x is the cheapest option is tough no matter who’s money you are paying with.



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  1. Check the type of aircraft that’s being flown between Houston and Denver. It might be the Dreamliner that ends up eventually going to Tokyo direct after Denver. That’s my guess, anyway.

    • It was all flights (except the one LAS red-eye) that priced around $650+ that day. Good old 737s in most cases.

  2. Hard to generalize based on one purchase in the age of dynamic pricing. The fewer seats left on a route, the more a carrier typically charges for those seats. I wonder if your example would have had the same results if you’d booked far in advance.

    • I used one example, but this is far from the first time I have seen or written about this phenomenon. It’s not new and it’s not unique to IAH and United, but it seems to be getting to be more and more of a strong issue here. Almost every ticket I have priced in the last few months has been a good deal more to fly United. Not just a few dollars more, but sometimes 2x, 3x, or 6x more.

      • I have seen this too in recent months for pricing UA flights, but can’t really blame UA I feel. As you noted, there does seem to be someone who is buying these flights. If a company can sell a (relatively) similar product as a competitor but for 6x more, this has to be seen as a win for UA.

  3. Oh, and while I know IAH is a United hub…HOU is a SWA hub. Living in another city with both as Hubs (DEN), I have to say that I’ll happily use SWA over United any day of the week. Hobby isn’t THAT much farther than IAD for you, is it?

    • Yeah, it’s another hour more in realistic traffic many days. South Houston is a whole other world when you live north of Houston.

      • Oh, come now… Houston traffic can be terrible, especially during rush hour. An hour between IAH and HOU?? I’ve gone from the south Beltway & I-45 to IAH late on a Friday afternoon numerous times and it’s never taken that long.

        Frankly, as someone who flies frequently for business and leisure, I’ve noticed the seemingly ridiculous fares on United out of Houston quite often since the merger with Continental. Nothing new.

        • An hour for me…even on the beltway. If you add the time to park and get to the actual airport…it is easily an hour for me. And you never know what traffic or road conditions will offer .

  4. Let’s be honest here, Spirit and Frontier aren’t in the same ballpark, league, or even sport as UA/DL/AA/AS/etc, so while those are relevant to leisure travelers, I don’t think they are at all relevant to business travelers (at least based on the people I’ve talked to).

      • Well, except the Amex Travel portal my husband’s company uses keys off those fares to determine how much you can spend. I highly doubt theirs is the only system that does so.

  5. These comparisons are meaningless unless you know how many seats UA has already sold. Maybe they sold the cheap seats and they have a few left that they want to sell at a high price and the other airlines will get there if they sell the cheap seats as well.

    • I used one example, but I am seeing this time and time again. However, to stick with this example….flight that would have worked those dates shows 9+ seats in every fare class still available except N which showed 7. Heck, there were even 6 award seats available, but yet prices were still super high. While not scientific at all, glancing at the seat map shows 1/2 the plane still empty a couple weeks out.

  6. I came to this same realization right about 2 years ago – gave up my lowly Silver status and never looked back. I’m a SFO based traveler, so it is hard to avoid United, but they simply quit being a good choice due to price and (lack of) amenities. It has been a big improvement in my travel life to fly more often on family-friendly airlines like SWA and Virgin America.

  7. Summer – you are just identifying one of the ways in which legacy airlines get to be profitable. There is almost no price sensitivity amongst many business travelers. While many large companies like IBM who spend approximately half a billion a year on travel have systems in place to try to prevent overspending, many smaller companies cannot afford it and many senior staff members have overrides.

    This means that airlines can charge whatever they want to business travelers and will fill the empty seats with cheaper connecting passengers. It’s clearly working for the legacy airlines.

    Long live Frontier (have only flown them 3x) and Spirit (never flown them). I’ve been fortunate to have always found things out of ORD/MDW and spread out between AA, UA, and WN.

    • Oh I know this is certainly the path to profitability for the airlines… but with smarter booking systems available to even medium to small companies, and low cost carrier nonstop options, I just have to wonder where the breaking point is, even for business travelers.

      • Smarter booking systems may be getting to be more affordable for smaller companies – but that does not mean they are seen as worthwhile, despite the lower cost.

        IMHO a fine line in how much cost and effort should be involved in making business travelers buy less expensive flights. In my old (large) company our travel provider tried to make people take flights with connections over direct flights to save 20, 50, 100, etc.

        Sounds OK until you realize the connections have layovers of 4-6 hours. Not the best use of most business people’s time, even if they can work from the airport.

    • “This means that airlines can charge whatever they want to business travelers and will fill the empty seats with cheaper connecting passengers. It’s clearly working for the legacy airlines.”

      An airline, especially United, can’t just charge whatever it wants to business travelers. If United could do this then every seat would be priced at $10,000+ going forward. United can only charge what a customer (business or otherwise) is willing to pay. You can be sure they go to great efforts to calculate the highest dollar possible, but in the end the customer is a willing participant.

  8. I fly primarily out of SFO and have had surprisingly good luck this year with United fares. As UA Premier Gold, I’ll try to fly them when it isn’t significantly more inconvenient and/or expensive. I’ve had especially good luck on the SFO-ORD route which is a common one for me. Have done that multiple times this year for under $300 r/t on United. Just booked SFO-DCA for $475 r/t. I sometimes choose Southwest out of OAK for regional routes, primarily due to convenience, but rarely are they much cheaper than United these days to a similar destination.

  9. A lot of companies mandate non stop flights get preference. My employer would not have allowed the AA flight due to connection would have been placed on either Southwest or Frontier ( they don’t make us do Spirit). The only catch would have been timing if I can justify that their times didn’t work the. Corporate travel would have gotten me on a UA flight.

  10. Maybe try to book a skipped leg itinerary from Houston to somewhere else that transfers in Denver, and just skip the latter leg. The price tag can potentially be halved.

    • Z, doesn’t really work with a business travel booking engine, but otherwise totally worth looking at in many cases.

  11. One consideration you might be under-weighting is schedule flexibility. From DFW, for example, going to LGA on American with its nearly hourly shuttle-like service and liberal standby policies for elites is usually way better than any less flexible option. Conversely, any once-a-day schedule (e.g., Spirit), in addition to being inconvenient, also carries with it the greater possibility of a complete meltdown in the case of any mechanical or other problem.

  12. I intended to sharply curtail my United flying this year and finally give up my 1K status, but I’ve been getting amazing first class prices between SFO and ATL at about $725 roundtrip. Delta wants almost that much for coach, and even though I am a Diamond Medallion with Delta, I would probably rarely have scored an upgrade if I chose Delta. So, the pricing just really depends on the market and you never know, it might swing back in your favor some day when you don’t expect it!

  13. I’m DEN based and run into that very problem almost every time I go to book. UAL is usually at least 2x for the direct option. Even when Southwest has a direct option to the same city!

  14. I still fly United for overseas business travel. But I have dropped them for domestic for similar reasons. But their miles are still the most valuable. Though I prefer not to use miles for domestic travel, my summer hawaii itinerary was coming in at $1000+ per person. So I checked United’s award availability and less then 3 months out there is still saver awards space.

  15. This is hardly surprising. United’s fares are targeted as business travelers, who don’t have another nonstop legacy carrier choice on this route. Of course AA is cheaper on this route, as they make you connect. On routes where United competes with another legacy carrier (e.g., SFO-ORD as another commenter noted) fares will be much more competitive. Spirit and Frontier are ultra-low-cost. Regardless of what you think about them in comparison to United, United doesn’t consider them direct competition so it will charge what the market will bear. And so long as United fills its planes (which they are doing) why would they need to lower fares?

    BTW, a quick Google Flights search shows United does have roundtrip non-stop fares under $200, but you have to book farther in advance.

  16. Literally just stepped off a virgin America flight and was seated next to a United crew member. He told me he loves when united is full and they have to put him on virgin because in his words “United is such a shit airline .” I have to agree. The new seats are so uncomfortable and I’m not sure they could possibly pack more people on. All that for consistently the highest price!

  17. I must agree with you as to the escalation of fares by United, in comparison to other airlines, both ‘regular’ and ‘discount’ varieties. Like you, I am based in the Houston area, and I have been a Premier 1K flyer for the last 3 years, and Platinum before that. In the last 2 years, I have noted the huge fare increases, and then when oil prices went down, no decrease at all (granted, other airlines have also increased their fares during the same period, but are still much less on most occasions). So, this year, while I have flown United, I have also used Southwest and JetBlue out of Hobby Airport/Houston, when the fare differential was like in the example you gave. Eventually, I might just use United just on certain long flights, keep maybe just a Gold status on MileagePlus, which gets you on the plane early enough and lounge use overseas, and then Southwest, JetBlue, et al., for domestic flights when their fares are much less. It irks me to be forced by United to seek flights on other carriers, thus diluting my points, but then you have to realize – it’s not about loyalty anymore!

  18. IN GENERAL, United seems to suck more and more lately. I’ve noticed this with award tickets – when all that seems to be available is “mixed cabin.” Blahh…

  19. Not many people give Frontier much love, but since I fly out of Denver primarily, I find that they offer a wide variety of direct flights at ok prices. You do have to pay $20 for a checked bag or $30 for carry-on (although you can join the Den for free and reduce those fees by $5). You can almost always buy extra leg room (first four rows or exit row) for $30-$40. Even adding on $100 in baggage and seating fees for a round trip, Frontier often can beat the legacy carriers. They also seem to have friendly flight attendants (for the most part), especially when compared with some of my United experiences. If the flight times work (which admittedly is an issue on some routes), I would encourage you give them a try some time.

    • I live in Denver and won’t give Frontier the time of day anymore. Such a shit airline. It’s one thing to be nickled and dimed to death, even having shitty service from gate to flight. It’s absolutely another to consistently have flights delayed by several hours and always losing luggage. Absolutely not worth mine or my friends/family’s time. SWA by a mile.

  20. I am strictly a leisure traveler, so I cannot comment to short lead time purchases. I am based at IAH, and I can consistently find IAH-DEN fares less than $250 round trip. The lead times on my purchases are usually 1-3 months. I also book directly on UA’s website. I don’t go through OTAs, or other portals to get my fares.

  21. Summer, I have been loyal to UA for many years. I live near NASA, and bypass Hobby to travel an hour to iAH, then park, shuttle, yadda yadda.

    However, trending the other way now.. Just booked Hobby to LGA on Southwest for May flight and super happy about the savings in both dollars and time!! Sorry I have many “free” UA lounge passes that will not be using this trip, but that’s ok.
    Still loving the shirt you sent me!

  22. I have noticed it too. Trying to justify in my mind why I would continue to pay their insane price premiums because of my FF loyalty.

    Could they possibly be trying to discourage IAH passengers to worm their way out of the Contiental merger commitment? Nothing United would surprise me any longer!

  23. Get your article, change the city to MSP and the airline to Delta and you have my situation. In my case, my business let me justify why I am picking Delta over the other airlines and the main reason is direct flights or a way more decent time leaving MSP and arriving back. My travel system does not display Spirit at all (Tks God!!!!) and I don’t think Frontier as well. Thus, it comes down to Delta, Us Airways, United and AA and you can easily have MSP-OMA (a 45 minute flight) for example will cost $1200 on Delta non-stop vs $400 on other airlines connecting somewhere. However, if I chose Delta I can leave MSP at 7AM, get to OMA before 8AM, work the entire day, catch a 5:30PM flight and be home having dinner with my kids at 7PM. Well, if I pick AA, United or US Airways, I definitely need to overnight in Omaha to get what I need done. Thus, it comes out to trade off but of course Delta is ripping us off as much as they can.

  24. Like Karen, we live around NASA, so Hobby is only 15 min from us and IAH is about an hour. We fly SWA almost exclusively for domestic flights since they generally have non stop flights out of Hobby – the only other place I wish they have NS is to SFO…(NS is essential for us since my life will be so much easier with no transfer or stopover with a wheelchair!) but I agree living in Houston flying United is an obvious choice from many standpoints, though I don’t particularly like their service. We are flying to NRT in July (I know your family flew that route before and it was not too bad) and I really hope United service is not too disappointing (when we booked, the ANA route had not opened yet, but we will come back on ANA from NRT to SEA, stay a few days then fly SWA back to Hobby.)

  25. Hub to Hub? I’m not surprised… Why didn’t he try to do two one-ways hidden city? 🙂 Hehe

    My routes are DEN-ORD, and DEN-EWR. I’ve found it’s either crappy departure times, or check every single day to see what buckets are available using expert mode.

    Weddings in April & May in EWR I was able to book for $260 (G fare) and $269 (G fare) direct both times. Only issue is 11.30pm arrival!

  26. Summer, was just having this discussion with “myself” asking what’s going on with UA. Based out of Denver and finding higher fares than last year. I’d be interested in knowing who is leaving/has left United. 1K and platinum past few years and asking if it’s worth it for 2016.

  27. Having worked for years as a traveling management consultant, I typically bought contract fares that were deeply discounted far out to only $10 off for a round trip fare at the last minute. Often times, I was booking trips from ATL-LGA roundtrip the Friday before the Monday travel (peak times). Fares were $800-1000+ for coach or First Class and I booked whatever I could confirm a seat on that allowed me to be in Midtown Manhattan by 10:00am. I had a client who didn’t care about fares, just that we were all there on schedule.

    I would never in a million years have considered booking a budget airline in that situation and relied heavily on the airline that could immediately accommodate a meeting running over or cancellation. Connections were the VERY last consideration, price be damned. I had limited time at home and did everything I could to limit disruptions. It benefited me and my family, the airlines margins, and my client was happy. Legacy carriers know how to appeal to the business traveler and in a lot of companies, price is only one factor out of many in deciding which to book.

  28. When Flying between 2 united hubs…United will always be the more expensive option. (IAH to DEN, EWR, etc.) I would suspect that DFW to ORD is more expensive on AA as well.

    In NYC, it’s usually far cheaper to fly UA out of LGA than EWR.

    The only areas where the larger carriers have great service is generally where they compete with their foreign counterparts. (e.g. EWR/HKG, or EWR/LHR)

    When it comes to the current predicament, I would simply vote with my wallet. Is the $400 savings worth an extra 2 hours of someone’s time? If it’s a saves a hotel stay…Maybe. Otherwise, probably not.

  29. You are looking at hub-hub fares; no surprise that United is more expensive than American. Try DFW-CLT and the situation will likely be reversed.

  30. United has been known to use non-hub airports like LAS for connections. Doing a flexible date search, I see IAH-AUS-DEN for $152 and IAH-MSY-DEN for $180. Unless one wants to stop for a beignet, I’ll go through AUS.

    My problem isn’t having a connection but rather regional jets for non-regional routes. DFW-SFO on a CRJ700 is 3 hours of pure torture, especially when AA is flying 757 and 767s.

  31. Some observations from a SFO/SJC based flyer:

    -I just tried some searches with ExpertFlyer. UA IAH-DEN fares are much lower if you stay over a Friday night, and there are some good “hidden city” options (for example check out one way IAH-PDX). Personally, I’d be happy to enjoy the many attractions in Denver for a day or two in exchange for the lower fare.

    -Interestingly, my corporate booking engine does not show the lowest fares on Southwest. For example, for a recent SJC-DAL trip, Southwest had $150 one way fares available, but the corporate system priced at $300. Also, Southwest Senior fares are unavailable on the corporate system (this can be very significant – for example, SJC-DAL with no advance purchase is $218 senior; $505 for the younger set). Not sure whether this is a Southwest or travel agent imposed restriction.

  32. 1) Airfares are sky high across all remaining legacies now. With the latest merger now nearly consummated, the US3 have carved up the country and competition has diminished dramatically. If you want cheap airfare, fly UA out of DFW or ATL or DL or AA out of IAH.

    2) UA changed the way it pricwd flights last year. They used to price low early and then increased the prices gradually as it got closer to departure. That is how AA still runs its RMS. Since last year, UA will often price flights in very high fare buckets well in advance IF the markets allow. I fly AUS-EWR-AUS weekly on UA and it is not uncommon to see V/Q/H and even the occasional B fare on the EWR-AUS leg several months in advance with the flight largely empty. It often paus to wait until closer in for lower pricing.

    3) IAH is one of the highest priced average fare airports in the US for a reason. No real competition and LOTS of corporate travel, much of it intl which means a lot of domestic flying is in paid F because fliers are transiting to TATL and TPAC J flights.

    There is no good solution short of moving, but even that is a flawed option. Look at AUS for example where property prices, airfare, and cost of living expenses have exploded due to the VC fueled startups being flush with cash. As a result, AUS has become one of the toughest domestic upgrades for anyone other than GS in the UA system IMO.

  33. At Newark united is generally still the cheapest and in Philly US Air seems to be getting more expensive (from the routes I searched). So I’m still with United from my company travel perspective. Though for personal travel I usually go Southwest or JetBlue.

  34. You can blame business travelers like me who are pretty much indifferent to price if it matches the exact schedule I need. And while I love to fly Southwest as well, I’ll agree Hobby is just too far when you’re already north of IAH (at least for business travel). Have made my share of flights from HOU when the price is that different for leisure travel.

  35. I agree. Last year I made a concerted effort to only fly United and came up a flight short and even spent more at times to do so. This year I am no longer flying United due to the cost of many of their flights compared to others. So this year, I will do my best to only fly One World carriers and always use my AA number…….

  36. So I’m totally guilty of being the business traveler that books based on schedule or convenience vs cost. I work for a large management consulting company (that shall remain nameless!) and while we have travel “policies” in place, the reality is nobody ever questions our expenses. We either charge back to the client or use our (large) internal expense accounts to fund our travel. Just paid $800 to fly to DFW on AA this week when it was $200 on Southwest, but I didn’t want to take a 6AM flight or connect. The irony is I would have preferred to take SW as they were running a special double miles promotion in April. I’m also the person who paid $6K to fly to LHR on United when it was $2K on AA but I didn’t want to drive to JFK… So yes I paid $4,000 more to save 45 minutes of driving time to leave from EWR and stay with my preferred airline.

  37. It’s about flexibility. I travel for business. I need to arrive early enough in the day to actually get some work done. Frontier’s earliest departure is 2:30 in the afternoon, arriving a bit after 5pm. That requires an extra hotel night stay in my opinion so I can get my first work day in the following day.

    So what savings are there, really?

    Does Frontier have a lounge at IAH? What about Spirit and American? Do they have wifi so I can crank e-mail out while I am waiting to board? How about meals?

    The value proposition seems lacking but if think saving $300-400 is worth the time to connect in an out-of-the-way airport or to arrive outside business hours then your time simply isn’t valuable.

    Some executives are paid $300+ per hour. They charge their clients multiple of that. Of course it is worth the extra money.

  38. I too am/was a loyal UAL flyer, however, I have noticed the same thing as you mention, noncompetitive fares! I don’t mind paying a bit more to use my status and have the bulk of my fly miles in the UA program, but booking a r/t from HNL to HKG last year, I could not believe that UA wanted over $1,400.00 for this trip while looking on travelocity revealed fares as low as $700.00 r/t. UA was not only non-competitive, but ridiculous. Needless to say I didn’t fly UA.
    Recently, I was looking at HNL to YVR, a trip that I take almost annually to ski. UA wanted over $800.00-1,000.00 with no direct flights and poor return times. Air Canada on the other hand not only flies direct, but does it on Rouge for $450.00 r/t. How can I justify paying that much more for UA when the flight is not direct and twice the cost?
    What ever is going on at UA it’s not attracting customers, let alone loyal UA flyers. I’m not sure what the reason is aside from pure corporate profits, but this may be the end for me as far as being a loyal UA customer. I hope someone has the answer.

    • @Byron. My observation over the last few months is that UA has changed its inventory management strategy quite substantially. Economy fares are indeed astronomically high while Business Class fares are VERY low AND they don’t really increase price as seats are sold. That is an extremely aggressive attempt to fill the front of the plane while leaving the back of the plane fairly empty. And it goes without saying that using instruments is nearly impossible with a pricing strategy like that. If you look at flights to LHR today or tomorrow (as an example), you’ll notice that the back of the planes are universally very empty while the front of the planes are all full or just about full. It looks like UA doesn’t care to transport Y pax unless they are willing to shell out far more than they would on other carriers. A suicidal strategy IMO.

      • Thanks for that insight. I have noticed that on certain flights the upgrade is fairly reasonable compared with what it used to be which certainly explains the econ pricing. I used to rely on my premier status to get upgraded, but lately that is few and far between as, as you mentioned, the front of the plane is full. Even regional upgrades are virtually useless as I tried 4 times last year to use them with no success, particularly on longer routes like HNL-EWR and HNL-IAH. I’ll get a complimentary upgrade on the short regional leg, but rarely even on HNL-LAX.
        I suppose more people are buying the upgrade, or there are a lot more 1K flyers ahead of me, so yes those comp upgrades have virtually disappeared. I have noticed that UA flights are packed to the brim lately, completely full throughout the cabin, so profits must be up and I doubt they are going to change their strategy if planes are full. Sad.

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