Another lawsuit has fallen in the lap of United Airlines and their MileagePlus frequent flyer program. This time around it is not based on elite benefits but on claims that passengers are not begin credited with the proper number of points per their contract with the company. And, I must admit, what I saw when I actually read the filing surprised me quite a bit, mostly because the claimant missed the opportunity to go after what is likely a legitimate data set and instead went with one of the more ridiculous claims I’ve heard in a while.
Hongbo Han has filed a class action claim in Illinois suggesting that the airline is shorting customers because they are credited only with the nominal point-to-point distances between two cities rather than with the actual miles flown on any given flight. Han claims that this approach violates the terms of the contract with Mileage Plus because:
Nowhere in the MileagePlus Program Rules does United state that mileage or miles credited are not actual miles flown by the member. Clause 18.1 of the MileagePlus Program Rules merely states that "[i]n the case of air travel, mileage will only be credited for flights actually flown by the member."
The filing includes a number of Beijing – Dulles flight details, noting that United routinely awards 6,920 miles for that routing despite the actual flight routing being more than that. Han’s complaint details the actual miles flown on his travel dates and suggests that United owes him those miles, plus the 25% bonus on those extra miles due to his "Premier status."
Han does acknowledge that the awarded flight miles are determined by the "purchased ticket routing" which does not necessarily match the flown aircraft routing, so it is not entirely clear that there is much of a case here, but I suppose we’ll see. The part where Han cites a USA Today "article" about points as supporting his claim through selectively quoting the content out of context also probably isn’t going to help the case.
What is most surprising to me is that Han took the rather less certain claim in filing the case, ignoring that the number of miles credited often is actually less than the distance between the airports even on the most ideal routing. The IAD-PEK flight he mentions several times in the claim only earns 6,920 points. But the distance between the two airports is actually 6,921 according to the most commonly accepted formula for calculating the distance between two points on a spheroid of the earth’s dimensions. Newark to Hong Kong is 8,065 miles. United even knows that:
And yet they routinely only ever award 8,060 miles for the trip.
There was some outrage a year ago when the points credited for each city pair changed, mostly to lower numbers. United at the time claimed that the issue was related to differing data sets and calculation methods. Ultimately they simply backed off the changes. But that seems a much more likely case of being able to actually win a claim against the company than the suggestion that actual flight miles should be used.
To be fair, I was pretty drunk on a flight back in October 2007 and during the time we spent circling over Virginia and Pennsylvania waiting to land in Newark I wrote an open letter to Continental asking to earn the points actually flown rather than just the point-to-point distance. But I also was joking. This guy filed a class-action lawsuit over basically the same thing.
We’ll see where this one ends up, but I have a feeling it won’t be in Han’s favor.
A copy of the filing can be found here.
UPDATE: It seems that United isn’t the only carrier facing this challenge. US Airways and Delta were served with nearly identical suits (citing the same USA Today story and basically just search/replace on the other salient details) as well.
United Airlines used to have a reasonably customer-friendly expiry policy for the upgrade instruments earned by their top elite members: they were valid through the end of the year after they were earned. As part of the merger with Continental that policy changed to a slightly less friendly one year validity. As of tonight the policy has changed again to be even more friendly than the old one. Upgrades are now valid through the end of the following elite program year, meaning January 31. Here’s the announcement:
- Newly-earned GPUs and RPUs will be valid longer. Starting later this month, when newly earned GPUs and RPUs are deposited into your account, they will be valid through the end of the following Premier program year instead of just one year from the date of issue. So, for example, all GPUs and RPUs earned in 2012 will be valid through January 31, 2014; those earned in 2013 will be valid through January 31, 2015 and so on.
- Unused GPUs and RPUs earned in 2012 will also be extended. For those of you who currently have GPUs or RPUs in your account that were earned based on 2012 travel, these will also automatically be extended and will be valid through the end of the next Premier program year (January 31, 2014). This includes GPUs and RPUs that are waitlisted or redeposited. Upon redeposit, the extended validity date will be reflected.
These validity changes will take effect by the end of this month, and in the meantime, no action will be required on your part.
We know GPUs and RPUs are an important benefit and we hope this change will provide more flexibility in using your GPUs and RPUs. As always, thanks for the feedback and please let us know what questions you may have.
The one year rule didn’t really affect me too much personally but there were many who felt it was really, really bad. Hopefully this change will soften the pain a bit.
Is the aviation experience in the United States so incredibly bad that the carriers have simply given up trying to compete with foreign carriers? Listening to a piece on HuffPo live titled "Can We Fix The Airlines?" yesterday evening that was the general feeling being bandied about. And after listening I couldn’t help but be even more frustrated at not being able to participate (I was invited) than when I had to turn down the initial invitation. If only to correct some of the glaring inaccuracies in the information being shared. Alas, it was not to be. And so I’m here, typing away instead.
To be fair, flying in coach domestically is rarely a great experience. But it really isn’t all that much more glorious on regional flights in Asia or Europe. You’re still on a narrow-body plane with 30-32" pitch. Some carriers have snacks and drinks; some do not. Some have IFE and some do not. Some flights are delayed or canceled and some are not. Just like flying in the USA. And even the "business class" experience in those areas isn’t all fun and games. In Asia there are plenty of narrow-body aircraft flying routes of a few hours or so. Food & beverage is better but the seats are generally similar to those on US carriers. In Europe it is the same on the meals but the seats are rather worse. Economy seats with a blocked middle and no extra pitch? Not really a premium product at all. The Middle Eastern carriers are more tightly squeezed across in coach than most US carriers in many cases; that’s not something that a few movies solves on a 12 hour flight in my experience.
Are the lounges nicer elsewhere? Sure. They are also quite a bit more exclusive in terms of gaining access. Turns out when you’re serving fewer passengers and they’re each paying more to access the facilities you can have slightly better amenities. In markets where they are competing directly (mostly Asia) the US carriers do offer more competitive lounge products. Still not incredible, but reasonable in the market.
There was also a decent amount of misinformation in the piece. Discussions of US government subsidies (EAS routes) made it sound like the funding is offered in significant business markets, not for random airports which wouldn’t be served otherwise. Suggestions of government subsidies for the Middle Eastern carriers is also an interesting topic when it comes up. No evidence, naturally, but the accusations are there. And there were the references to the "golden age" of air travel, neglecting the part where the amount of space one has today on a business or first class seat on long-haul flights is far greater than 30 years ago. But who’s counting?
There is very much a difference between the long-haul and short-haul markets, either in the US or elsewhere. US carriers haven’t been particularly ahead of the curve in cabin comfort for long-haul. That said, the original Continental BusinessFirst seat was ahead of the pack for business class when it was launched (a long time ago). And the US Airways Envoy Suite is the business class product that Cathay Pacific and American Airlines have coopted for their long-haul fleets. Not consistently ahead of the curve, but there are flashes of brilliance every now and then. And with some of the vaunted Asian and European carriers still offering angle-flat seats on comparable routes it isn’t particularly fair to suggest that the US is that far behind across the board.
For better or for worse, flying is simply transportation. And it is rarely luxurious, regardless of which carrier you’re booked on. I wish things were nicer, but I know I’m not going to pay for it. And neither are most other passengers. Such is life.
Airlines and online travel agencies (OTAs) continue in their fight over distribution costs and, once again, customers are stuck in the middle. The most recent battle is being waged by Frontier Airlines. They announced this week that they will charge higher fees and reduce benefits for customers who book via OTAs.
Customers flying on Frontier who book through an OTA will receive only 50% credit in the EarlyReturns frequent flyer program. They will also face a $50 premium on fees for flight changes, standby travel and bringing pets on board, among other things. Customers who do not book directly will also not be able to assign seats on the flights until check-in. This move is unlikely to win the carrier many friends, especially given recent overtures from politicians railing against assigned seating fees when it comes to families being split up on planes. Naturally, Frontier recognizes the value of assigned seats. Daniel Shurz, Frontier’s senior vice president, commercial sums it up quite well:
Particularly for families, it provides an incentive to book directly. There is no logical reason for our customers to want to book anywhere else.
And while customers who are committed to flying with Frontier will see benefits from booking directly, there are plenty of logical reasons for starting a search elsewhere. Comparing prices and flight times with other airlines is not something Frontier offers on its site. Nor does it help passengers compare other benefits associated with flights such as legroom, entertainment or in-flight internet service. Naturally the online travel agents are reminding customers of the benefits they offer, including comparing multiple airlines and the ability to mix carriers on itineraries.
Airlines and OTAs have been fighting for a while now over distribution costs. It is no surprise that the airlines balk at paying the $20-ish it costs for an OTA booking when they can handle the same transaction internally for just a couple dollars. Plus most OTAs don’t have the ability to sell ancillary products (extra legroom, upgrades, etc.) which further reduces the revenue for the airlines. Where those features have been incorporated into the process the sales have been impressive, but it requires a significant change in technology infrastructure to support the option, something the OTAs are not inclined to invest in.
This isn’t the first time that an airline has changed the benefits available to customers based on the booking channels; Continental previously offered 50% elite credit on 3rd party discount fares booked through 3rd party sites. And the fight between American and OTAs got so bad recently that American Airlines pulled inventory from Orbitz for a while. It is back now, but there are still legal battles being fought on that front.
Whether through legal challenges or just variable customer service levels, expect the battle to continue. That’s bad news for customers but it is what the market demands these days.
The Wall Street Journal has a piece out this week discussing the ever shrinking number of first class seats flying around the world. They’re calling it a "long, slow death" and focus on the change from a First/Business/Economy model to a Business/Premium Economy/Economy model among a number of carriers.
For decades, international first class was a symbol of self-indulgence in the sky, several rungs above its domestic cousin, which tends to be closer to economy class, but with free alcohol and bigger, cushier seats.
The top-drawer service, however, has been disappearing from U.S. airlines for decades. Of the more than 500 aircraft U.S. airlines regularly fly to Europe, Asia and South America, just 27% offer first class.
And there is plenty of truth in the story. The number of seats marketed as First Class is definitely decreasing. But from the perspective of "self-indulgence in the sky" things would seem to be a bit different. Business Class today is, by most measures, a more comfortable in-flight experience than First Class was 10 years ago. From that perspective First Class isn’t really dead; it just has a different name.
Virgin Atlantic was one of the first carriers to tackle this issue. Their Upper Class product was revolutionary when it was launched. The in-flight and ground services paralleled (some aspects better than others) First Class offerings from their main competitor, British Airways, while being sold as a Business Class product. This allowed them to attract a number of corporate contracts and build quite a loyal customer base. The passengers were happy to get the solid in-flight product and the accounts were happy to be buying Business Class seats.
The trend has continued and other carriers have cut their First Class offerings while upgrading Business Class significantly. Most have also matched the Virgin approach of naming it differently. BusinessFirst, Envoy and BusinessElite are the product names that Continental, US Airways and Delta introduced. The product has continued to improve, making Business Class a very comfortable and pleasant way to fly.
Sure, there are still some exceptional First Class products out there. The Emirates A380 suites are quite enjoyable and taking a shower while flying is both wonderful and ridiculous, for example. Even when flying on points I generally find it hard to justify the incremental cost to get into First Class. The "special" benefits don’t outweigh being able to travel more often for me. And with the number of folks willing to actually pay the incremental costs (points or cash) to get from Business to First is so small it isn’t hard to understand why the airlines are cutting the product from their fleets.
After all, many are replacing it with something better, even if it has a different name.
As a spectator I’m oft amused but the labor integration issues associated with mergers of unionized companies. As a customer I’m horrified because it nearly always is bad news for me as the crews bicker over which set of rules will prevail and how the "other" side is so horrible. But as a spectator those same situations can be rather entertaining as the employees slowly move to integrated operations.
The current integration efforts of the legacy Continental and United Airlines‘ crews are the latest such spectacle, replete with the usual bone-headed "lobbying" of customers and complaints, either in the galley or openly to passengers, about how the changes are bad. I’ve heard far too many crews on United flights recently announce that a "Proud Continental Crew" is working the trip and even some "Real United Crew" announcements. It is petty and stupid and does nothing to make the situation better for anyone.
I’ve also had a few experiences where the crews are getting over it in more ways than one. A recent flight from Phoenix to Houston had a "trans-Con" FA working the flight. This was a sUA FA who chose to switch to the sCO side (CO is hiring and UA is not due to aircraft delivery schedules and the lack of an integrated workforce). She cited a number of reasons for making the switch while we chatted, mostly focused on improving her personal quality of life, even in spite of her union trying to limit the ability of the FAs to make that switch. Can’t say that’s a bad thing at all for her, though it is strange that the union is getting in the way rather than helping the situation.
Over the weekend I was introduced to another group of flight attendants working to change the way the split crews of the single company are interacting: The Sister and Brotherhood of the Traveling Scarves and Ties.
OK, so the name is a bit unwieldy, but the idea is a pretty simple one and a pretty cool one. Flight Attendants are being encouraged to share the scarf or tie component of their uniform with a FA from the other side of the company. It is, by many accounts, a silly gesture. But it is also quite a symbolic one. They all really do work for the same company and serve the same customers. Remembering that is a good thing.
And the good news is that it seems they’ve got a decent number of folks participating from the beginning. In other words, maybe the labor situation really isn’t so bad, at least where the folks doing the actual work are. A guy can dream…
Oh, and can we stop with the silly "Proud Continental" and "Real United" crew announcements. Please??
Although their official operations/consolidations list has not been updated, reports are coming in that United Airlines will be consolidating their operations at Washington DC’s National Airport on Tuesday, July 10. They will be taking over two gates currently occupied by Delta in the south pier of the terminal and vacating their gates in the central pier. This is the space where Continental operated from historically.
There are two good bits which come out of this announcement. First, consolidating the operations into a single security area is great news for customers. That checkpoint also has TSA PreCheck at it so that is a win, too. Better IRROPs handling should also be possible as passengers won’t have to move to the other area in the terminal.
The second bit of good news is that this means the old Presidents Club lounge is being kept. The facility is one of very few in the network which actually has some character and connection to the local station. It has great views and a somewhat majestic feel inside.
Yeah…I’m really happy this is happening.
UPDATE: The United Lounge Locations page shows the legacy RCC closing permanently on the 10th. Sounds like the move happens that night!
Looks like some seat maps are being updated for United Airlines this weekend, including a number of 772s from the legacy Continental fleet. And, starting around mid-August, it looks like the forward section of the economy cabin will be losing a row of seats with the others getting the E+ increased legroom.
The chart suggests only 7 rows of E+ seating in this configuration for a total of 63 seats which will have a pitch of around 35-36".
Also worth noting is that the conversion process doesn’t happen immediately so it is entirely possible that some aircraft will see this configuration prior to the mid-August dates that the seat maps are currently showing it for.
I had quite high expectations as I boarded United Airlines flight 15 from Newark to Honolulu. This is, after all, a flagship route and as a top-tier elite customer seated in the forward cabin I expected a level of service and comfort that would be truly unparalleled from the world’s largest airline. That expectation was shattered even before we left the ground when I was threatened with arrest for attempting to talk to the pilots before the cockpit door had been closed. Wh’ev.
Things went downhill from there.
One of the recorded pre-flight announcements indicated that the flight was operated by Continental Airlines, a brand that hasn’t existed since I put them out of business back in March. Seriously, it has been more than 8 weeks now. That they haven’t fixed the recording is an abomination and an insult to brand homogenization. Alas, following my prior chastisement I chose to bite my lip and accept that the flight was going to be a miserable 11 hours of my life rather than point out to the flight attendants that there was a mistake in the recordings that demanded resolution.
A meal was served shortly after departure. The flight attendants who had appeared so diligent in following my every move prior to departure had failed to notice that I had traded seats with another on the flight. This meant that my meal order was taken approximately 38 seconds after it should have been, with the FA going to the incorrect seat before finally noticing my new arrangements and coming over to ask what I wanted.
Continuing with the branding debacle which started with the announcement prior to departure, the linens, glassware and flatware were a mismatched mess of old and new names and logos.
The steak was fine – it tasted nothing like leather – but, as can be seen from the photo, there was no bread to be found anywhere near my tray. Truly insulting that the roll wasn’t served as it should have been.
The ice cream sundae trolley showed up after dinner, laden with gooey toppings and a few choices of digestifs for those of that persuasion. Of course, being a Hawaii trip I was more in to mai tais than liquor and I asked to have another. I was informed that the mai tais had too much sugar, meaning that I should stop drinking them. Oh, and no Grand Marnier, either. Alas, I was stuck drinking the cognac instead.
All this, and we still hadn’t cleared Wyoming airspace.
The flight continued, as did the abject mistreatment. I wasn’t awoken from my nap, meaning my fresh-baked mid-flight cookie cooled off before I could eat it. They simply do not taste the same when the cookies have cooled.
By this point in the flight, as if by some miracle, additional mai tais appeared in the forward galley and shortly thereafter at our seat. Of course, as part of serving the drinks at this point in the trip, questions were raised as to my consumption habits, including my willingness to mix rum drinks with other rum drinks and the impact that might have on my sobriety. Explaining to the flight attendants that getting drunk was the only way to deal with their subordination didn’t seem like the correct response; once again I bit my tongue.
About an hour before arrival our last meal was served, I accepted the tray from the flight attendant and then immediately realized my mistake. They served the meal with only 55 minutes remaining before arrival and that would mean insufficient time to digest before undertaking the hike from the gate to the curb. And I know how important it is to have time to digest before such strenuous exercise. I considered calling for a wheelchair to avoid issues but instead simply accepted the risk of getting a cramp as I walked out of the airport to our next meal.
Finally, our landing in Honolulu was anything but normal. We used a different runway than I’m used to from my previous trips to the island meaning that the views I was expecting on final approach didn’t materialize. It is hard to get good photos of a landing when the pilots change things like that on you without consultation.
At least the flight was finally over. Eleven hours I’ll never get back. Eleven hours of pure torture.
Yes, the entire post here was decidedly tongue-in-cheek. That said, the service really was rather below par from my previous experiences. Part of that stems from the downgrades in the service offered on the flight (fewer meal choices, entrees of lesser quality) and part of it was from a crew that didn’t really seem to be happy working, much less with a group of six guys in the forward cabin who actually intended to enjoy the trip rather than just idle through until the doors opened again on arrival. I really never did get a roll with my meal, for instance, and things like drink and snack basket service were essentially non-existent. Only one of the FAs was anywhere close to being personable. Oh, and the IFE on these planes really is an embarrassment. Just awful.
Clearly not actually a "trip from hell" but also not a particularly great ride.
As United Airlines moves to unify the service offerings between their two legacy operations there are only a few bits left to reconcile. One of those is the catering setup for long-haul flights, where the current service varies depending on which legacy carrier the route is operated by. Starting June 1 the new catering plans go into effect, with the goal of harmonizing the service across all premium cabins, regardless of whether it is operated by a legacy United or Continental aircraft. Alas, even the new plan isn’t quite so harmonized.
On the plus side, the company appears to be migrating the legacy Continental BusinessFirst concept towards the legacy United side of things. This means expansion of the ice cream sundae cart and four entrée choices coming to all business class offerings (legacy United was only 3).
Still, depending on whether it is a 2-cabin or 3-cabin aircraft the service will differ. On a 2-cabin plane there will be a choice of appetizers offered and they will be served from a cart in the aisle per passenger request, separate from the salad course. On 3-cabin aircraft there will be only one appetizer and it is served on a tray along with the salad. In both cases the appetizers will only be cold offerings now in BusinessFirst.
At dessert time the 2-cabin aircraft will continue to serve the cheese course from the cart in the aisle while the 3-cabin aircraft will have the cheese pre-plated and served from the galley, and possibly fewer choices of cheese on the plate. Additionally, the petit fours are disappearing from BusinessFirst on 2-cabin aircraft for the dessert course.
Also of note is that the actual entrée choices being offered will be transitioning to those from the legacy Continental operation, at least in the European markets.
The new United Global First meal service is seeing a few tweaks as well. The overall six-course meal service will otherwise generally remain the same. Appetizers, however, will now be served from a cart in the aisle and there will be two hot choices for passengers to select from.
On 3-cabin flights it also appears that the actual entrée selections will be the same in Global First and BusinessFirst, further blurring the the lines between the two offerings. Dessert will still have more choices in Global First (petit fours along with the sundae) and the appetizers will be hot rather than cold. Plus there is a soup course. Definitely not an identical meal service but still very similar. For service to/from China the Global First cabin also gets cookies during the mid-flight snack while the BusinessFirst cabin does not.
The company has decided to retire all of their patterned china; the new service will be from plain white dishes. Hard to know if that actually matters or not, but it is part of the update. Also, the company will be moving towards the legacy Continental glassware in the business class cabins. This includes the water, wine and cordial services. Also, and apparently this is a big deal. the company is shifting to using tongs rather than spoons for some portions of the service. Amazing, huh?
There are a number of matrices describing which routes and aircraft get which meal service, based on number of cabins, destination region and departure time. The charts are filled with tiny print over many pages. Needless to say figuring out what the meal is supposed to be isn’t a particularly trivial process.
Overall the idea of harmonizing the services is a good one. I probably would have taken a different tack in some of the choices, but I understand that there are limitations, both financial and practical, which preclude that in some cases. Making things more consistent for customers helps improve the ability to deliver the product. Alas, there are still going to be differences for the passengers depending on which type of aircraft they are on, among other things. Such is life, I suppose.