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Bye bye United. How United lost (another!) 1K Member

Category : united

First, I want to say that this is not your traditional FHWW fare. Instead, this is about fares of a different sort – airfare and loyalty programs. I could rant for quite a while on this topic, but instead, I’d like to tell you about my story and the decision I recently made.

A Longtime United Customer… no Longer

I’ve been a long time traveler on United, starting from my days back in Chicago when they were the big game in town to when I moved to the East coast and found United to still be a good way to go. Having been in United’s frequent flier program since 1994, I accumulated a lot of miles and lifetime value. I stuck with their quirky ways and used them most of the time when the competitive fares were about the same. Of course, I would regularly fly Southwest and other airlines when the fares were out of whack.

But this story is not a complaint about airfares. It’s a complaint about the decreasing value of loyalty.

I am a 1K Frequent Flier in the United program. Why they call it 1K is beyond me because it actually is 100K, that is 100,000 miles flown in one year qualifies you for their highest level loyalty rewards program. It’s worth highlighting the word highest because that supposedly means you are the most important set of customers to them, with perhaps the exception being those in the Million Mile club (not to be confused with the Mile High Club), who might also be 1K members.

The problem is that 1K program membership has over time eroded to mean little. I would primarily use the benefits of my 1k membership by getting upgrades as often as possible and additional mileage bonus points.

The key operative word in the above is try. United really does all it can to make it hard to use the rewards that are the benefits of its loyalty program. If you try to upgrade when you check in, forget it. Odds are it will already be fully booked, most likely by upgraders in loyalty program levels lower than your own. Your best shot is to upgrade 24-72 hours in advance.

But then there’s a big catch. Even 1k members can’t upgrade all classes of tickets (Q and S especially), and if your itinerary includes a flight on a code-share with another airline, forget it. You’re back to cattle class. This is not an issue on short-haul domestic flights, but I flew halfway across the world on a Star Alliance member airline and got treated no better than someone who had zero loyalty.

Now, I’m not complaining about economy class. Sure, if that’s what I paid for, maybe that’s what I deserved. But then again, what was the value of having 1K membership? If the only value of loyalty is having to pay for higher-fare “upgradable” economy class tickets (which set you back a few hundred or more dollars in addition to the discounted economy class fare) and then you can’t even use that loyalty on supposed partner airlines, there’s really no value to loyalty.

Airline loyalty is heavily skewed in the favor of the airlines. The airlines benefit by capturing your revenue. The passengers benefit little in the way of upgrades or free tickets.

Now, I can put up with all that if United at least treated its 1k passengers with some respect (after all, we are dedicating our travel budgets to them!). But the straw that broke the camel’s back was my latest overseas trip when they basically told me that they can give a rat’s ass about my 1k Membership.

Now, they didn’t use the “rat’s ass” part, but the rest is absolutely true. I was trying to upgrade on a segment of my airfare that involved a partner airline (yes, I know now that’s impossible, see above). But the problem is that the partner airline was telling me that it was United’s problem to resolve. United was telling me it was the partner’s problem. I bought my ticket from United, so I was inclined to believe the partner.

I’m also United’s loyal customer, so you’d think they’d want to go to bat for me. Nope. Wrong on both counts. They told me “I don’t care what level of partner you are, you’re not going to get anything from United.”

I just stood there dumbfounded. What kind of @!##@$ crack is that? You don’t care about my loyalty? Well then, F– you! You’ve lost it.

The Lesson to be Learned

Loyalty is an aspect of trust. It has to be earned. It can’t be singled-sidedly granted and then revoked. Customers give their loyalty. Companies earn it. But somehow we have it all backwards in the travel industry. Somehow customers have to earn loyalty and companies give benefits as if they were donating turkeys at a Thanksgiving charity dinner. When they run out of turkeys, the benefits are gone.

For me, I’m going to fly on the airline that offers the best deal at that time. If I want to fly business class, I’m better off paying for that and saving the hundreds of dollars in the meantime by avoiding paying the price for loyalty.

And if you are thinking of creating your own loyalty program, don’t do it the way that airlines, hotels, and rental car companies do it — through collecting points and then limiting rewards. Do it by giving your customers the incentive to keep coming back and refering their friends and neighbors. Reward people by giving them flat discounts off airfares and upgrades.The more you fly, the more discounts you get. Think of it as coupon-based loyalty.

What are your thoughts / frustrations with the airline industry and United’s program in particular? Have you also made a 2008 New Year’s resolution to avoid companies that treat you as if they would rather you not be their customer?