United Breaks Relationships

Here’s a broken business model: Entice your best customers into an affinity club with discounts and goodies. Then, when you have them corralled, mistreat them so badly they will hate dealing with you. Such is United Airlines. And their Star Alliance partners, too.

Trying to book vacation flights has landed me in a nightmare worthy of Franz Kafka. After a mere four hours juggling schedules, fares that shifted by the minute, oddball airlines, and mismatched timing, I purchased three economy-class tickets from San Francisco to Oslo and then Warsaw back to San Francisco on Swiss Air.

“Can I upgrade these tickets to Business Class?” I asked the Swiss Air rep. “No problem, sir, you just call United for that.” I asked again just to make sure. No problem.

I got the e-tickets and called United. An agent named Kunal told me I was ineligible for upgrades to Business Class. I had “Q” tickets, but I needed “B” tickets. There was nothing he could do; his system was “restricted.”

I called Swiss Air back and explained the situation to Lorna. “You ordered these tickets through a travel agent?” No, I explained. I purchased them from Swiss Air and was assured I could upgrade them. Long pause. I would need to pay an additional $1,193 per ticket to change them from Q to B. Wow. The original tickets had cost only $1,736 per person. I explained that I didn’t feel very good about this because Swiss Air had misinformed me to begin with. There was nothing she could do; I had non-refundable tickets. I handed over my credit card number and paid $3,579 for what I thought I had already purchased.

I called United’s Mileage Plus to upgrade. This is a manual process; you do it one step at a time. San Francisco to Zurich, 25,000 miles per passenger, check. Zurich to Oslo, 10,000 miles per passenger, check. “Hold it! You’re charging me for each segment? I’m flying from San Francisco to Oslo. Isn’t that one flight?” No, upgrades are per segment.

I explained that I would run out of miles at this rate. Let’s apply my miles to the long segments, San Francisco to Zurich and Zurich to San Francisco. Miranda said I could not do that. She had already upgraded our Zurich to Oslo segment. The only way to take back an upgrade would be to cancel the tickets with Swiss Air, buy new ones, and reapply the upgrades. I figured the odds of that working were less than 50-50. What if my miles went down some bureaucratic rathole?

“Okay, Miranda, I have only 65,000 frequent flier miles left. Let’s upgrade two of the Zurich to San Francisco return flights.” She said that was not possible. Since three of us were flying together, the choice was to upgrade all three or none. (Show me where that monkey wrench is documented on the UAL site.)

I’m halfway there and am now searching for ways to amass another 10,000 miles. If I have to, I’ll just buy them.

Ah ha! I have a plan. My wife flew to Europe with me in May and to the East Coast with me in July. We’ll grab her Frequent Flier miles. We called United, got her Frequent Flier number, and set up a new profile. I gathered the flight numbers. First, the trip to Europe on Swiss, an Alliance Partner. It was turned down; I know not why.

We’re not done yet. I went to the UAL Mileage Plus site and entered a claim for our US Air flight to the East Coast.

Okay. I’m beat. United wins a pyrrhic victory. I broke down and bought the 10,000 miles I needed. There’s a hitch. The Milage Plus website warns that I needed to wait 48 hours for the miles I purchased to show up in my account. In fact the site asked me to acknowledge that…

  • I understand that it will take 48 hours for the miles to post to my account. We cannot honor any requests to expedite mileage posting – no exceptions will be made.
  • I agree that this is a non-refundable purchase – no refunds will be granted.

Geez, guys, I’m just trying to buy from you.

I received an email from United at 9:11 pm yesterday, August 18, that the miles I had purchased had been credited to my account. I immediately called Mileage Plus to upgrade our return flights to business class. I could not do it; business class was sold out.

First thing the next morning I called Swiss Air. Were there three seats in business class from Zurich to SFO the previous day? No. The day before that? No. How much would it cost me to cancel all three of these tickets? I would receive a refund of $1,250 per person. What? With the status upgrade, I have paid $2,925.57 for each of these tickets. What would it cost to change the return flight? The line went dead.

I called United. If I cancel flights that have been upgraded, when do I receive the miles back? I would receive them as soon as I paid $150/person to “replenish” my Mileage Plus account.

Now what? I called Swiss Air back to double-check on their penalties for canceling our flights. Mary at Swiss Air told me if I cancelled the tickets, I would I receive a refund of $315 (for tickets for which I paid ┬átickets $2,925 apiece.) $1,190 of that ticket price was an upgrade to a class that was eligible for upgrade to Business Class even though it turns out Business Class is full for the return portion of the flight. I have given up on the idea of getting what I’d wanted and paid extra for.

We will sit in cattle-car class on the 14-hour flight from Zurich back to San Francisco. This was supposed to be a fun vacation.

WTF? Airlines offer Frequent Flier miles as an incentive to fly with them. Then they put these byzantine restrictions in place. For international redemptions, everything’s manual. It’s a time waster. It’s inefficient. The whole deal has me royally pissed off. Is this any way to run an airline? I wish JetBlue or Southwest flew to Europe.

Here’s dysfunctional marketing in action: Cull out your best customers, the repeaters who make the airline profitable. Then throw obstacles in their path, demonstrate your inefficiencies, put in surprise restrictions, and do your best to drive those good customers away. I fly a lot but I’m going to avoid United at all costs. In fact, I’m going to cancel my Business Class reservations from SFO to Rio the first week in October right now. And I’ll advise the sponsor of my flight to Portugal not to utilize United. Maybe I should write a song, “United Breaks Relationships.”



See Untied for more about United screw-ups

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