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Jul 21, 201502:12 PMMad @ Mgmt

with Walter Simson

Love for sale — by the airline

(page 1 of 2)

I am a frequent flier. Usually a trip a week, with average distances of 700–1,000 miles flown. I am loyal, pay my bills, and keep my mouth shut. I would think that I would be a prized customer.

I have been flying United. Notice the syntax, because my past behavior is not predictive of future results.

When United merged with Continental, there were problems that I, as a management expert, did not expect from a sophisticated company. Reservation system glitches, gate mix-ups, dirty planes. Resolving these problems took about a year, or so management said. As I write this, the entire United system is shut down due to a computer glitch. This is the second time in as many months that this has happened. I guess the practical issues are too hard to get your arms around.

But that is not true of United’s aggressive reimagining of its customer base — that has proceeded with dispatch. Post-merger, United decided that my former Platinum and Gold status in frequent flier terms was only worth Silver. So now they require that I pay extra for the formerly free extra legroom seats. And since everyone with a United credit card gets to board the plan in Group 2, Silver status means my loyalty is worth the same as or less than the $85 that any new flier pays for a cheesy credit card.

Post merger, there are also fewer flights. In part because in airline mergers, increasing load factors — keeping the planes full — is part of the logic of the transaction. Also because since then, the industry has been having well-publicized meetings where the watchword is “discipline.” This apparently is code for, “I won’t add too many planes in my company if you don’t add too many in yours, and together we’ll raise prices nicely.”

So I have been unhappy, but not so unhappy that I would change. Until now.

You see, a few weeks ago I was making plans to use some of the miles I have garnered from my steady flying habits. I thought I’d go to the West Coast.

I go to the frequent flier miles page and … Hmm. Very few flights. And the ones I could see all needed 60,000 miles per leg to complete the trip. Wow, I thought. Gotta plan more than four months ahead in order to book the flight.

But at the very same moment that my results were coming up dry, my wife was on her work computer, doing the same search. And guess what? Her results showed that we could get plenty of flights at 25,000 miles per leg.

Hmm, again. A glitch? Something more nefarious? We booked using her miles and account, not thinking too much about it.


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