Love for sale — by the airline

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.



Then I needed to go see a new client, which means I needed to research a new route. I turned to the United website and also to a third party travel site, I thought I would use United to see United, and Expedia to see all the non-United flights I’d have as options.

But Expedia’s results naturally showed United flights along with all the other carriers. Expedia has a “best price guarantee,” as it turns out. I never paid much attention to that claim. After all, they can’t be lower or better than the carrier I have been loyal to for all these years, right?

Wrong. In every flight combination I tried, United was higher — on the same flight, same date, and same seats — than the fare offered by Expedia. The flight I booked with the best price guarantee for $477 would have been $677 on the United site.

Turns out, my buying behavior has been studied by United for their benefit, and not mine.

I am angry and disappointed that they would use my data in this way, and I wonder if this violates any legal principal. Whether it does or not, I am now actively searching for flying alternatives.

Message to airline company presidents who want a new passenger:

  • Give me a best price guarantee.
  • Preserve my modest boarding, seat selection, upgrade, and date-switching amenities.
  • Be honest on the cost and availability of trips when I use my miles.
  • Cap the credit card fees. Throw in some pretzels. Make me feel wanted and keep your own promises.

In this day and age of market concentration and monopolistic behaviors on the part of the carriers, I once thought my only recourse would be to give the United chairman a good boop-ya-head, should I be fortunate enough to find him lost in my driveway.

Why? ’Cause he obviously does not care about my business. And I doubt that he cares that this article might attract the attention of the attorneys general of various states or Justice’s anti-trust department.

But, other airline chairmen, please take note. It’s a good thing the Internet provides information to everyone. Because if you are fair with me, I will not only contract to leave that old carrier forever, I will bring 100,000 like-minded frequent fliers with me.

Here’s an idea: Let’s set up a system where consumers can auction their loyalty.

Startup Weekend participants looking for a really good idea, please take note.

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