Dec112008

United Airlines Build Your Own Flight with Travel Options

A couple of days ago I went on a rant about my United Airlines experience this year.  I was asked to FAX my credit card statement to start trying to get back $500 in overcharges from United.  I sent the FAX machine to my wife’s school classroom last year since the school copier kept breaking down and she needed a photocopier in her classroom.  I’ll try the snail mail service option.

I hope United Airlines does not decide to ban me for bitching on my blog.  These things do happen.  I read one of the more popular blog posts on Tripso.com today that tells the story of a couple banned from Royal Caribbean cruise lines for complaining too much about trips and posting to CruiseCritic.com, the internet bulletin board for the world of cruisers.

Today I was looking at United Airlines website and the “Travel Options by United” program.

I currently have no elite status with United Airlines in 2008 after being 1K elite for half of this decade.  I just stopped flying in 2008.  Three trips to Denver and a flight to Las Vegas is the sum of my air travel for 2008.  My air travel carbon footprint went way down.  This is the first year ever that my wife has out flown me.

In June 2007 I flew Air France Business Class from Buenos Aires to Santiago on a $550 bargain Delta Business Class roundtrip fare from Buenos Aires to Washington D.C.  I luxuriated with a half-dozen other passengers in Business Class.  No passengers were seated in the four seat first class cabin.  I read through the flight magazine while dining on damn good cuisine for plane food.  The carbon calculator article in the flight mag blew me away with the statistical impact of air travel compared to other polluting processes. 

Maybe it was the wine or maybe it was the Andes Mountains views, but I had a revelation and thought I should reduce the impact of flying around the world for the sake of flying to attain elite status and lots of wonderful cost-saving, travel-pleasing benefits like a much more pleasant airport experience with First Class check in lines, priority security and boarding, and airport lounge access for free food, drink, and showers.  Not to mention complimentary domestic and international flight upgrades. 

Over the past year the divide has grown immensely between benefits the airline provides to an elite traveler compared to a frequent flyer program general member or non-member general public flyer.

Many benefits come complimentary for the loyalty elite members.  

For the rest of the airline’s flyers there is a pay for access airline industry model of revenue enhancement compared to air travel of a few years ago.  You now have fees and pay for priority line access, baggage handling, airline lounge access, plane boarding order, seat and row position on the aircraft, food if the plane has any for sale, soda, water, nuts, online ticket purchase, offline ticket purchase, phone ticket purchase, airport ticket purchase, credit card purchase, and frequent flyer miles purchase.

We used to enjoy all the soda, water, and juice we could drink when flying cross-country.  Now cough up $2 or $3 a soda can and fork out another $6 to $8 for some food.  We used to get complimentary alcohol to be buzzed enough to pass out in an economy upright seat when flying abroad.  Now it is “credit cards only.  We don’t handle cash.”

I fondly remember flying back from Heathrow Airport, London after our honeymoon in the UK in 1989, flying Pan Am on a 747 to San Francisco with a group of British bikers heading to Laguna Seca Raceway here in Monterey.  We partied with the bikers and there were 12 cases of ale consumed between 20 to 30 people on that 10 hour flight.  The beer cases were actually stacked on the floor of the galley which is how I know there were twelve when we started.  We ran out of beer before landing in San Francisco. 

The flight would probably not have been so jovial if we had received a $1,500 drink payment due upon landing.

Travel Options by United

And now back to the point.  Today I was looking at United Airlines website and the “Travel Options by United” program.

The ticket for a two-hour economy flight I have to Denver next week can be customized.  I feel like I am in the Build My Own Custom Computer upsale game.

For $39 each way I can upgrade my seat to Economy Plus.  $78 added to my ticket.

For $115 I can buy an Award Accelerator of 3,840 miles.  This is 3 cents per mile or about $750 to buy the miles for a 25,000-mile domestic economy award ticket.  Award Accelerator is not an economical way to accumulate frequent flyer miles, however, it is a “green” way to earn miles.  Frequent flyer miles have always been equated to currency by frequent flyers, and now they are truly a currency commodity in the drive to sell flyers more miles for flying.

The award accelerators used to be handled with frequent flyer promotions. I preferred the good old days when the miles came free with promotions, like in 2004 when United gave elite flyers who met the qualifying criteria of flying 10,000 miles in January 2004 an opportunity to earn quadruple miles in spring 2004. 

The customize your flight options makes me think United Mileage Plus will move to fewer promotions as miles and services are pay-as-you-go and available to the infrequent flyer.  Complimentary benefits of air travel are more tightly restricted to elite flyers today and these elite flyers see the benefit of maintaining elite status to avoid the myriad of fees bestowed on the infrequent flyer. 

I wonder if the value difference between elites and non-elites will be narrowed now that programs like Travel Options by United are in place. There may be downward pressure on current prices in this deflationary travel economy.  The $39 each way Economy Plus fare could drop by half, if the number of Mileage Plus elites drops in 2009 and the Economy Plus section of the planes are not full. 

Still I guess this is good news for elites as the perks should be more accessible to lower elite members if the number of high elites declines in 2009 and 2010.

Denver for the Holidays

Monterey-Denver ticket price $314 round trip each ticket for two passengers

This is the simulated reality of a general member trying to fly United Airlines for holiday travel to see family and exchange gifts.  Hey, I’m a cheap ass and I don’t plan to pay for any of these add-ons.

United Travel Options: $626 in add-on fees and I still can’t get in the Red Carpet Club lounge.

$156 Economy Plus, $39 each way or $156 total for E+ seating both flight segments for two passengers.

$230 Award Accelerator – 3,840 Award Accelerator miles for each flyer’s account in addition to the 1,920 frequent flyer miles we earn for the base flight miles.  5,760 redeemable miles per account.

$80 Premier Line – $40 each passenger to access Premier check-in at Denver Airport, priority security line in Denver, and Seating Zone 1 boarding in Denver.   Monterey is a first in line, first served kind of airport.

$60 First Checked Bag Fee – $15 each way for one checked bag for two passengers.

$100 Second Checked Bag Fee – $25 each way for second checked bag and each passenger has a 2nd checked bag to hold all the holiday gifts.

Elite is still cheap

US Airways has had flights in the past two weeks for $400 all-in between San Francisco and Dublin, Ireland for the next three months.  Two roundtrip flights for a total cost of $800 and credit United Airlines Mileage Plus.   As a Mileage Plus Premier elite you will receive $400 of the above fee related services and benefits for free.  This is why there is still a community of frequent flyer mileage runners.

Is United creating a smart marketing environment to promote becoming an elite flyer?  Time will tell.

About Ric Garrido

Ric Garrido of Monterey, California started Loyalty Traveler in 2006 for traveler education on hotel and air travel, primarily using frequent flyer and frequent guest loyalty programs for bargain travel. Loyalty Traveler joined BoardingArea.com in 2008.

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