Saturday, February 2, 2008

United Airline's Unfriendly Skies

About six years ago United Airlines had the best frequent flier program. I was prepared to pay up to $50 extra to fly United just for this reason. Now a lot of that has changed. I want to caution fellow US travellers so that they don't get burned.

But first here's what I had liked about the old program:
  • If there was a seat available on a flight you wanted, you could get it even at short notice for just 25K miles. Easy availability and no sneaky "fees"
  • If you booked your "free" (or Mileage Plus award) ticket and your plans changed, you could change bookings on the same itinerary without charges or penalties, so long as seats were available
  • You could go to the airport and fly standby on a different date on forward or return legs without any charges and restrictions, so long as seats were available and you were sticking to your original itinerary (same departure and destination airports)
  • Your miles did not lapse so long as there was some activity in your account in the preceding 36 months
  • If your your account had no activity for close to 36 months, you would get a cautinary notice from United a few months in advance about the impending loss of miles

Now consider the changes in United's program. None of these has been announced except for the one about the period of account inactivity that triggers forfeiture of miles being reduced from 36 months to 18 months:

  • Now very few (and sometimes none) seats per flight are available for "saver" award fares of 25K miles. After that some other seats are available for "standard" award fares of 50K miles. And you may get neither even if the plane has plenty of vacant seats because their set "quota" of designated award seats has been allocated
  • You can still change your dates without charge on your original itinerary, but only if award ticket seats in that category (like "saver") is available on that flight. Good luck finding that though
  • Trying to go standby on a different date is no longer allowed, even if the flight you want to go on is empty
  • The no activity period in your account after which you lose miles has been reduced from 36 months to 18 months from the beginning of this year (2008)
  • This is really sneaky. They no longer warn you of impending forfeiture of your miles. In fact the monthly and quarterly statements they send you do not even contain a "last activity date" or date when miles lapse, unlike any of the other airlines.

All my daughter Rubina's miles were quietly taken away last month. She had not been traveling on United in the past 18 months because her flight destinations were inconvenient on United's flights, and their prices were significantly higher. Leave alone sending a warning, United deliberately does not mention the mileage expiration date in the monthly statement that they email or mail to members.

I called up customer service to point this out while requesting her miles be restored. They refused, saying this is their new policy. They said customers should log into their Mileage Plus accounts and then track their expiration dates. They offered to sell her back her lapsed miles - at a price amounting to $350 for a "free" saver fare, or $650 for a "free" standard fare. Thanks a lot. I asked United customer service why they don't mention the mileage expiration date or last activity date on their emailed/mailed statements like other major carriers do. No answer.

Other airline programs have negative features as well. Air Tran and Southwest frequent flier benefits are useless unless you accumulate enough miles for a free ticket within a 12 month period, because they all lapse otherwise. Delta and American charge fees of $85 and $50 respectively if you book tickets less than 20 days in advance, with even higher fees for booking within 7 days. Many airlines offer 25K awards only on the routes with least demand. But at least you don't feel they're stealing your miles outright.

I'll still fly United or Air Tran or Southwest, but may go with other airlines with better mileage programs if their fares are less than $25 - $50 higher.


kenrod said...

Thanks Sandip for that info. Not only is United doing this to mileage, but gift cards issued by stores are contemplating a monthly charge so unused cards will eventually zero out. Over $2 billion of gift cards are "lost" every year. But I think it's shortsighted for these companies to annex these cards.

I think of how I have always carried a few hundred dollars of American Express travellers checks for emergency. I noticed one of them was dated in 1989. Now, AMEX hasn't paid me any interest on hundreds of dollars for decades.

And I always keep a substantial amount on my Starbucks card in case I have to entertain people. If Starbucks starts charging a fee, I will immediately order 15 grande lattes, deplete my card, and sit up all night reading War and Peace with my caffeine rush.

Sandip Madan said...

Thanks, Kenrod. I've lost gift cards myself. I share your dislike for these tricks like fees and expiration dates.