Thursday, November 7, 2013

Trip report: going to Melbourne as a top tier frequent flyer on United Airlines

When I was invited by the wonderful people from The Eventful Group to speak at their "Mastering SAP supply chain" conference in Melbourne Australia, I was really excited and looking forward to the trip. As it turned out, United Airlines was quick to make sure they put a big damper on my happiness. After all, I fly between 100 and 130k with them... Year by year, mile by mile... for the last 21 years (oops... you think you could expect a little service..,

So...right after The Eventful Group confirmed, I called United to book the flight. I call because I have 6 global upgrades and if you book online you can't use them (you figure out why that is). The rep on the phone gave me the run-around "you can't use an upgrade in that fare class... No, not that day... Uh, not on Australian flights... Maybe later... Maybe earlier".

Ok! I understand, United. You don't want to give away biz class flights to Australia for an economy fare, but then say so. And don't make me book every flight of the year on United with the promise that I get 6 upgrades of which I want to use at least two on the ONE flight that means the most to me - 25 hours in coach? After I spend money on you at least twice a week for the whole year?

Ok... I'm booked... Standby for business first. Which means that in case they don't sell the seats, then they will put me on a waitlist which they prioritize by... 'god only knows how'

A little while later I think about my visa. United tells me they can do it for me... Ok, no need to go online where it's free. I can call a United rep and they do it for me. 75 minutes later I've been told that I have a visa for Australia... for a $60 charge. Unfortunately the Visa isn't there when I check in at the airport. Not only that... But the check-in rep gives me a scolding about why I don't take charge and book my Visa online... "Because I trust United provides me with that service... As promised... For a 1K passsenger... For $60? She gives me that look that makes me feel like I'm a crazy man.

So I thank her for getting me a Visa and spending another $60 and get a 'roll of the eyes' in return. (I wonder how they treat in-frequent flyers).

On to LAX. 5 hours and 35 minutes in flight. I feel like that's enough for today but no dice... the big one is coming up next. At LAX I check on the waitlist for upgrades and I find myself as number 10. Briefly wondering how a 1K, who uses a complementary global upgrade (we get 6 of those a year and usually I have at least 5 of those expire at the end of the year), can be displaced by 9 other travelers (this is not a regular complimentary upgrade I am asking for - it's a global upgrade certificate) I check on the last segment from SYD to MEL. I am not even on the list !

So I go to speak to an agent... "Call the help desk". I do and I ask why I'm not on the list. The phone agent: "Do you want to talk to IT?" I say "No, I want to get on the list"... I hear a click, background music comes on and then I get disconnected. Again: how do they treat their in-frequent flyers?

Now I am boarding for the flight to Sydney. Seat assignment is 19C - bulkhead with extra air conditioning blowing the life out of me. The lady in the middle seat next to me is wrapped up in her and my blanket and a fleece jacket. She's not one of these skinny supermodels, so she takes up about 45% of the three seat... about 27.5% left for me. The airplane must be from the '70s. THEY STILL HAVE SHARED SCREENS FOR THE MOVIES !!! So there are 3 movies "Grown ups", "The Heat", "Planes" and a comedy collection available. They play that over and over for 15 hours. I pop some Melatonin and hope to be able to sleep.

Now comes the food... I really don't want to talk about it. It makes me sick... I didn't eat for the entire flight.

Meanwhile I take a jealous glance at Business First... that makes me feel much better. They have configurations of two and four seats. the seats come down flat - which is great for sleeping on your back - but they seem to be as wide as economy... not one inch wider. If you are in the middle of those four seaters, you must be feeling very similar to what I'm going through... and that for $18,500? Well you've got your own private screen!

It's Saturday morning and we land in beautiful Australia. Surprisingly, I feel ok. Slept about 7 hours, but I am really hungry. It seems that the UA Aussie staff is a lot more friendly. The get me into the New Zealand Air lounge and I get a very good breakfast. Then I stop by the desk to see if I can get an upgrade for the last leg. "No worries, mate" the agent replies, "there are 30 open seats in Business First. Please have a seat. I will look you up". It's only an hour and a half, but I don't mind using my upgrade certificate because it will expire anyway... along with 5 other ones.

there comes the lovely agent "We are so sorry Sir, but United does not allow you to be upgraded. They claim that the agents in LAX should have put you on the list in LA. Once you boarded the plane it's all done". I reply "but I was put on the list six weeks ago when I booked the flight?" "We are so sorry but they scolded us already!"

So the Aussies got scolded for trying to get a 1K his upgrade for the certificate that he deserved for flying 130,000 miles last year. No worries, mates! I sit in economy staring at Business First with 2 passengers and the flight attendants stretching out on those empty seats because they have no one to serve. Nice!

Now that it is all done I know that my life with United is coming to an end. And I am thinking about what was the best and what was the worst. That assessment is easy: the best was when it was still Continental! The worst? It's that feeling when you get off the phone with United or walk away from their check-in booth. It's that feeling of  "I must have done something wrong... I must be a bad person" that you get when you talk to them... Is that what "flying the friendly United skies" is all about?

Next year I will be a 1K again. I will receive those upgrade certificates again and I will use them when I can confirm the upgrade before the flight... without waitlist... as if that will happen? Other than that I will shop around for business class flights on long hauls and if I can give one suggestion as a frequent flyer: It is not worth buying every flight on United just to get a Premier Status. What's in it for me? absolutely nothing. I am much better off to buy a business class ticket on another airline for a better price.

...and the prioritization of that waiting list? I guarantee, that they give it to less frequent flyers who they want to entice to join and hook. Once you're hooked and fly the "friendly skies" all the times, they will treat you like they treat me... and that's not pretty...